Earlier this month, my colleagues and I at the Southern Poverty Law Center were privileged to stand with U.S. Rep. John Lewis at the Civil Rights Memorial as he led a bipartisan congressional delegation in laying a wreath in honor of those who lost their lives in our country’s epic battle for equality.
The ceremony was held on the eve of the 45th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” that Sunday back in March of 1965 when Lewis and other civil rights advocates were beaten and tear-gassed by baton-wielding state troopers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on a march in support of voting rights.
The pictures of the bloodied marchers pricked the conscience of the nation. Thousands of people of all races and faiths flocked to Selma and joined Lewis, Dr. King, and the people of the Black Belt of Alabama as they resumed the march for justice. As Dr. King explained, “If the worst in American life lurked in [Selma’s] dark street[s], the best of American instincts arose passionately from across the nation to overcome it.”
On March 25 – 45 years ago today – the marchers reached the state capitol in Montgomery. Their courage, their example, inspired the introduction and passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, legislation that transformed our nation.
This past Sunday, Lewis was involved in another march. Along with other members of Congress, he walked up to Capitol Hill to cast a vote for health-care reform, another important piece of legislation with the potential to transform our nation.
But once again, Lewis was confronted with the ugly stain of racism. Angry “tea party” protesters shouted racial slurs at him and Rep. Andre Carson of Indiana. Another black congressman, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, was spit on. Rep. Barney Frank, an openly gay congressman, was the target of anti-gay epithets, and Rep. Ciro Rodriguez of Texas was called a "wetback."
Lewis said that the protesters at the Capitol reminded him of the angry mobs that confronted him during the ugly days of civil rights movement in the 1960s.
The question now is whether America will respond as it did 45 years ago when it saw the pictures of the racism at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Will people of good faith – of all races and faiths – stand with Rep. Lewis and reject the politics of hate? Or will the angry mob, fueled by racism and demagoguery, continue to swell?
Will “the best of American instincts,” to use Dr. King’s words from 45 years ago, once again arise “passionately from across the nation to overcome” the hate and fear that threatens to engulf us?