WASHINGTON, D.C. – On the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” U.S. Senator Susan Collins traveled to Selma, Alabama, to participate in the Bipartisan Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage. The trip commemorated the famous civil rights march that led to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The trip included visits to historic locations in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, including the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of “Bloody Sunday,” where 600 civil rights marchers, including now-Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, marched toward Montgomery to protest racial discrimination in voting. The march was stopped by law enforcement who attacked the peaceful demonstrators with clubs and tear gas.
Following the pilgrimage, Senator Collins wrote about her reflections from the trip. Senator Collins’ op-ed was published in today’s Portland Press Herald and can be read below.
Sen. Susan Collins: Selma, a testament to the power of courage, forgiveness
Fifty years after 'Bloody Sunday,' a Maine senator joins the march to honor civil rights-era heroes.
As a young girl growing up in northern Maine, the turmoil in the South during the 1960s seemed a world away to me. So when South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the only African-American in the Senate, invited me to the Faith and Politics Pilgrimage to Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the infamous civil rights march known as “Bloody Sunday,” I quickly accepted. During that weekend, I learned of extraordinary courage, astonishing forgiveness and changed lives.
A discussion of our journey must start with our leader, John Lewis, a congressman and civil rights hero who led the marchers as they began their walk from Selma to Montgomery across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965.
At Brown Chapel at Selma’s AME Church, he described to us in vivid detail organizing the march for voting rights and then leading the 600 “foot soldiers,” marching peacefully two-by-two along the sidewalk on the bridge, only to be confronted by a wall of Alabama state troopers and sheriffs who clubbed the unarmed demonstrators, turned on powerful fire hoses and choked them with tear gas. John Lewis’ skull was fractured, and it was not certain he would live. Catholic nuns at a nearby hospital took in the wounded.
Rep. Lewis is eloquent when he describes the injustices of those times. In Lowndes County, Alabama, the population was 80 percent African-American, yet not a single black citizen was registered to vote. Those who tried were confronted with impossible barriers like having to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar, or were handed a bar of soap and asked how many bubbles it contained. Literacy tests and poll taxes were common, as was a requirement that a white person vouch for the black American’s character.
But what most amazed me about Rep. Lewis was his infinite capacity for forgiveness. Not a trace of bitterness affects his retelling of the repeated beatings and jailings he endured as he fought for equality as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
He told a moving story of one of his attackers coming to his office many years later to ask for forgiveness. Peggy Wallace Kennedy, daughter of Gov. George Wallace, who ordered the state troopers to assault the peaceful marchers, was one of the participants at the Edmund Pettus Bridge ceremony. The powerful themes of redemption and forgiveness resonated throughout the weekend.
African-American churches played an enormous role in the civil rights movement. Many of the leaders were ministers, such as John Lewis, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy Sr., and the churches were gathering places, sanctuaries and sources of inspiration.
There were so many poignant moments during our pilgrimage. We visited the 16th Street Baptist Church where four young girls were killed by a Ku Klux Klan bomb during choir practice in 1963, a crime so heinous it proved to be a turning point in the struggle.
We listened to the remarks of Mary Lilleboe, whose mother, Viola Liuzzo, a white woman with five young children, was shot by the Klan as she helped drive the protesters. Mary described the last phone call from her mother at 8 p.m., saying she was fine. The children marched around the living room with homemade signs in support of their mom and the marchers. Mary once was asked how her mother could have gone to Alabama, to which she replied: “Why wasn’t everyone in Alabama?”
I also met David Goodman, whose brother Andrew Goodman was one of three white civil rights activists murdered in Mississippi. David was just 17 when the call came that Andrew, age 20, had been murdered.
Thousands from all over the country came to Selma to stand tall for justice and voting rights for African-Americans, and were protected by the National Guard. Their actions, inspired by leaders like John Lewis, who was arrested 40 times and suffered so much, led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Luci Baines Johnson told me this story of her father, President Johnson, signing this historic law. As a teenager watching her father at the ceremony, she saw him give the first signing pen to Republican Senate leader Everett Dirksen, who coauthored the bill with Democratic leader Mike Mansfield.
“Daddy,” she asked, why did you give that pen to that grumpy old Republican?” “Because, Luci Baines,” he replied, “without the Republicans, this would have been just a bill, not a law.”
The weekend was capped off by an eloquent speech by President Obama and the powerful presence of former President George W. Bush. I cannot remember the last time a former president came to an event not to speak, but to bear witness. Then we all marched in unity on that infamous bridge, commemorating the heroes who sacrificed so much.
Please click here to read the op-ed on the Portland Press Herald website.