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Congressional, civil rights leaders gather at Civil Rights Memorial to honor movement’s martyrs

U.S. Rep. John Lewis led a gathering of congressional and civil rights leaders in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, today, honoring those who lost their lives in the struggle for civil rights.

The Memorial, which the SPLC dedicated in 1989, honors 40 martyrs who died during the height of the civil rights movement, between the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board school desegregation decision in 1954 and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

A delegation of over 200 people including members of Congress, veterans of the civil rights movement, clergy and others gathered at the Memorial, which has been a frequent stop on civil rights pilgrimages led by Lewis. 

Joining Lewis at the Memorial were House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer; Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of President John F. Kennedy and former U.S. ambassador to Japan under President Barack Obama; several members of the Alabama congressional delegation and other dignitaries, including U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, whose grandson Jonah Lee was one of the two young men who laid the wreath for the ceremony.

This year marks the 54th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the day that Lewis, who was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was at the front of the column of demonstrators who attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights.

Lewis was badly beaten by state troopers who attacked the marchers with clubs and tear gas as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The attack galvanized support for the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“We come with the spirit and the belief that we can change things. We have the power. We have the ability. We can do it,” Lewis said. “Some of our brothers and sisters, our mothers and our fathers and grandparents, and our great grandparents, gave it all they could. And we, too, have the ability, we have the capacity to stand up, to speak up, and do something. We will do our part.”

Echoing a speech that King once gave, Lewis said, “We will play our role and we will play it so well that no one else could play it any better.”

SPLC President Richard Cohen welcomed Lewis and other members of the delegation to the Memorial, as SPLC Founder Morris Dees looked on from the crowd.

Cohen recognized Jimmie Lee Jackson, one of the martyrs whose name appears on the Memorial. Jackson was killed by a state trooper in 1965 during a march for the right to vote.

“His death led to Bloody Sunday, the great march from Selma to Montgomery and passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by the 89th Congress,” Cohen said. “But there’s a different act that I want to talk about today, another act that was passed by the same 89th Congress. It was an act like the Voting Rights Act that was designed to remedy discrimination and to repair a grave injustice in our country. I’m talking about the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Like the Voting Rights Act, the Immigration Act was passed by a bipartisan Congress. Overwhelming majorities of both parties supported it…President Johnson signed it at the Statue of Liberty. It explained that our immigration system was broken.”

Cohen continued, “Today we all know that our immigration system is broken once again, and we know that once again it will take bipartisan action to remedy it. There will be arguments. There will be good faith debates and disagreements. But one thing should be clear. There should be no place for bigotry in the debates, no place for what President Johnson called the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege. We need an immigration system that reflects our country’s great values, not its failures.”

Standing over the Memorial beside Lewis and other dignitaries, Cohen pointed out the blank space between the 1954 Brown decision and King’s death in 1968. That space on the Memorial – which Cohen said was the most important space on it – signifies that the movement continues through the work of everyone gathered there, he said, particularly Lewis and other members of Congress.

“When you come back here next year, let’s have something to celebrate,” Cohen said, addressing members of Congress. “Let’s have something to fill this space. Let’s have something – the passage of another Civil Rights Act – something we can all be proud of and something that will move us toward our goal of a more perfect union.”

The ceremony was part of a regular pilgrimage sponsored by the Faith & Politics Institute, which brings participants to historic civil rights sites in Alabama. The 2019 Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage began today and will continue through Monday, March 4. It includes stops in Selma as well as Montgomery.

The Civil Rights Memorial, designed by Maya Lin and built by the Southern Poverty Law Center, stands outside the SPLC office and less than a block from the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where King led the Montgomery bus boycott that galvanized the movement. Members of the delegation attended an event at the church before walking over to today’s ceremony at the Memorial.

Following the wreath-laying ceremony, members of the delegation entered the Civil Rights Memorial Center (CRMC) just behind the Memorial. The CRMC enhances the experience of the Memorial, providing visitors with more in-depth information about the civil rights martyrs and events in the movement. State-of-the-art exhibits and an original short film inside the center encourage thoughtful reflection on the power of individual activism.

A relative of a civil rights martyr whose name is inscribed on the Memorial attended the church event before walking over with the rest of the delegation to today’s ceremony. Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe is the daughter of Viola Liuzzo.

Liuzzo traveled to Alabama in March 1965 to help with the voting rights march after seeing television reports of the attack at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. She was ferrying marchers between Selma and Montgomery when she was shot and killed by Klansmen in a passing car.

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