Congressman John Lewis is no stranger to racial violence.
On March 7, 1965, Lewis—then the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—helped lead a 600-person march for voting rights from Selma, Alabama to Montegomery. As the march moved out of Selma, roughly 150 state troopers, sheriff's deputies, and "possemen" stopped the demonstrators on a bridge. One minute and five seconds after being ordered to disperse, clubs, tear gas, and bullwhips came down on the demonstrators. John Lewis was knocked down, called a "black bitch" and other racial epithets, hit on the ground with a billy club, and then hit again as he tried to get up. His skull was fractured.
The Associated Press managed to capture some of the violence, known as Bloody Sunday, in a photograph. John Lewis is in the background, being forced to the ground by a trooper:
So when a black teenager is killed and the shooter is acquitted of the charges, it is more than just a political talking point for Congressman John Lewis, who has represented Georgia since 1987. In a statement, Rep. Lewis said:
I am deeply disappointed by the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. It seems to justify the stalking and killing of innocent black boys and deny them any avenue of self-defense. On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I think it demonstrates the distance this nation still must go to fulfill the vision of equal justice Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life to defend. I hope this verdict will serve to open some kind of meaningful dialogue on the issues of race and justice in America.
The congressman had previously linked Trayvon Martin to Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955.
It's been almost fifty years since the March on Washington. That was two years before Lewis' skull was fractured, and nearly five years before Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. To a crowd of hundreds of thousands, John Lewis called for the federal government to act to protect black Americans:
My friends, let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution. By and large, American politics is dominated by politicians who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic, and social exploitation. There are exceptions, of course. We salute those. But what political leader can stand up and say, "My party is the party of principles"? For the party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland. The party of Javits is also the party of Goldwater. Where is our party? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington?
Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march in the streets of Birmingham? Where is the political party that will protect the citizens of Albany, Georgia? Do you know that in Albany, Georgia, nine of our leaders have been indicted, not by the Dixiecrats, but by the federal government for peaceful protest? But what did the federal government do when Albany's deputy sheriff beat Attorney C.B. King and left him half-dead? What did the federal government do when local police officials kicked and assaulted the pregnant wife of Slater King, and she lost her baby?
To those who have said, "Be patient and wait," we have long said that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, "Be patient." How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now. We do not want to go to jail. But we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace.
Nearly 50 years later, the congressman is still looking for his answer.
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