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For The First Time In 56 Years, A 'Bloody Sunday' Without John Lewis

In 2015, the late Rep. John Lewis stands on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where he was beaten by police on "Bloody Sunday."
In 2015, the late Rep. John Lewis stands on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where he was beaten by police on "Bloody Sunday."

This weekend marks 56 years since civil rights marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers on a day now known as "Bloody Sunday." The annual commemoration will be different this year — there's a pandemic, a new president and perhaps most notably, one missing voice.

On March, 7 1965, the late John Lewis and other civil rights leaders led a march from Selma to Montgomery to demonstrate for voting rights. While crossing onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the peaceful demonstrators, including Lewis, were brutally beaten by police.

It was just one episode across a decades-long fight for racial justice that began in a violent Jim Crow-era South in which Lewis risked his life championing freedom.

The civil rights icon and congressman — who, on that Bloody Sunday, had his skull cracked by troopers — died at age 80 in July after suffering from advanced-stage pancreatic cancer.

This weekend's events in Selma will be largely virtual due to COVID-19 restrictions, but will include an online re-enactment of the bridge-crossing. Hank Sanders, a former longtime Alabama state senator, has organized a drive-in breakfast for Sunday that will feature a lineup of speakers, including President Biden.

Hank Sanders, a longtime former Alabama state senator and voting rights advocate, will participate in honoring the late civil rights leader John Lewis at events marking the 56th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday."
Dave Martin / AP
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Hank Sanders, a longtime former Alabama state senator and voting rights advocate, will participate in honoring the late civil rights leader John Lewis at events marking the 56th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday."

This year's remembrance is devoted to honoring Lewis, along with other revolutionary leaders of that era who died last year — including the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a "dean" of the civil rights movement; the minister C.T. Vivian; and civil rights attorney Bruce Boynton.

"We are going to miss [John Lewis] because he had become a symbol for the voting rights movement, but he was one of many," said Sanders, a board member of the Selma-to-Montgomery March Foundation.

Sanders, who was a college student at the time, remembers another reason the activists gathered to march that day.

The month before, a white state trooper shot and killed Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young voting rights activist, in Marion, Ala. His murder sparked protesters to organize the Selma-to-Alabama marches.

Now, over five decades later, the country is bracing for the possibility of a new wave of civil unrest as the trial nears for the former Minneapolis police officer charged with killing George Floyd. The officer, who was seen on video kneeling on the neck of Floyd, a Black man, for several minutes last summer, will stand trial beginning the day after Bloody Sunday.

That landmark civil rights march in 1965 led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that same year.

But, Sanders said, the work of civil rights activists is not done.

"One of the realities that I've had to face is that every time that it appears that Black people in the United States make a little advancement or a little progress, there's a powerful backlash," he said.

Many activists who were alive to witness the passing of the Voting Rights Act also lived to see it gutted. Just this year, 33 states have taken action on over 160 proposals that restrict voter access, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Sanders, who met the protesters in Montgomery on the last day of the march, remembered hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lead the crowd in an urgent call for their civil rights.

"When Dr. King said 'How long?' and we would all shout back 'Not long!' I really thought that it wasn't gonna be long," Sanders said. "And so, here it is, 50 years later and we're still protecting, fighting, trying to protect what's left of the Voting Rights Act and then try to advance it."

Sanders remains hopeful that future generations will be able to carry on the torch, utilizing the same lessons he learned a half century ago.

"Creativity was employed and we were able to take marching feet and singing song and praying prayer and still be able to ride to victory," he said. "So we're gonna have to have that same creativity as we continue to fight this backlash of white supremacy — this backlash of voter suppression."

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