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Congressional, civil rights leaders gather to remember fallen heroes

Marking the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, U.S. Rep. John Lewis and a gathering of congressional leaders and others laid a wreath on the Civil Rights Memorial at the SPLC in Montgomery, Alabama, to honor those who were killed during the movement.

Marking the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, U.S. Rep. John Lewis and a gathering of congressional leaders and others laid a wreath on the Civil Rights Memorial at the SPLC in Montgomery, Alabama, to honor those who were killed during the movement.

On Sunday, a day after he joined President Obama for commemorative events in Selma, Lewis walked with congressional members past Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on their way to the Civil Rights Memorial a block away.

On March 7, 1965, Lewis, who was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was at the front of the column of marchers as they attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights. He was badly beaten by state troopers who attacked the marchers with billy clubs and tear gas on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The attack galvanized support for the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Before approaching the Maya Lin-designed Memorial, Lewis walked arm-and-arm with Peggy Wallace Kennedy, the daughter of former segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace. 

Others present included: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Hawaii Rep. Mark Takai, South Carolina Rep. James E. Clyburn and Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison.   

SPLC President Richard Cohen introduced Lewis and spoke of the importance of the annual wreath-laying ceremony at the Memorial, which the SPLC dedicated to martyrs of the movement in 1989.

“The Civil Rights Memorial is, in so many ways, the final resting place of those who died so that we could live in a true democracy,” Cohen said. “The Memorial chronicles the history of the movement from the decision of Brown v. Board in 1954 to 1968 and Dr. King’s untimely death. It remembers both the tragedies and the triumphs of that era.

“The civil rights movement didn’t begin in 1954 and it certainly didn’t end with Dr. King’s death. It continues through all of us, people of good will, who are committed to the principles of our democracy.”

Lewis also addressed the gathering.

“I think it’s fitting and appropriate to remember those who gave their life, everything they had, in the struggle to redeem the soul of America,” said Lewis, an Alabama native and now congressman from Georgia. “All of us should just take a moment and reflect. Let’s have a moment of silence.”

Bettie Mae Fikes, who performed in the 1960s as a member of the SNCC Freedom Singers, sang “We Shall Overcome” as others joined in. Many ran their hands through the water that flows over the names of the fallen martyrs.

The names of 40 civil rights martyrs are inscribed on the Civil Rights Memorial. They were murdered because they were active in the movement; killed as acts of terrorism aimed at intimidating civil rights activists; or, their deaths, like that of Emmett Till, helped spur the movement forward by demonstrating the brutality faced by African Americans in the South.

The congressional delegation was part of a regular pilgrimage sponsored by the Faith & Politics Institute, which brings participants to historic civil rights sites in Alabama.