By Senator Susan Collins
As a young girl growing up in Northern Maine, the turmoil in the South during the 1960s seemed a world away to me. Our schools focused mainly on earlier periods of American history. We learned about the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, but as students, we were not fully aware of the discrimination, marches and violence roiling our country, including the bloodshed in Selma, Ala.
So when Senator Tim Scott, the first African-American senator elected from the south since 1881, invited me to the Faith & Politics Pilgrimage to Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 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 infamous 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 and choked them with tear gas. Lewis’s skull was fractured, and it was not certain that he would live. Catholic nuns at a nearby hospital took in the wounded and cared for them.
The congressman is eloquent when he describes the injustices of those times. In Lowndes County, Ala., the population was 80 percent African-American, yet not a single black citizen was registered to vote. Those who tried to register 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 Lewis was his infinite capacity for forgiveness. Not a trace of bitterness is present in his retelling of the repeated beatings and jailings he endured as he fought for justice and equality as the 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 Governor George Wallace who ordered the state troopers to assault the peaceful marchers, was one of the participants of the ceremony at the Bridge. The powerful themes of redemption and forgiveness resonated throughout the weekend.
African-American churches played an enormous role in the civil rights movement. Not only were many of the leaders ministers, such as Lewis, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy Sr., but also the churches were gathering places, sources of inspiration and sanctuaries for the marchers.
There were so many poignant moments during our pilgrimage. We visited the 16th Street Baptist Church where four young girls were killed by a KKK bomb during choir practice in 1963, a crime so heinous that it proved to be a turning point in the struggle.
Another were the remarks of Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe, whose mother, Viola Liuzzo, a white woman from Michigan and mother of five young children, was shot by the Klan as she helped drive the protesters. Mary described the last call from her mother at 8 p.m., saying that 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 could her mother have gone to Alabama, to which she replied, “why wasn’t everyone in Alabama?”
I 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 came to Alabama from all over the country to stand tall for justice and voting rights for African-Americans. They marched and were protected by the National Guard. Their actions, led and inspired by the pioneers of the movement like 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 Leader Senator 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, that 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 President Bush and his wife. 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.
I am grateful for the opportunity to have participated in a weekend where I learned so much and met so many inspiring people who risked everything for justice.
Susan Collins is Maine’s senior U.S. Senator.