THE BLOG
03/11/2013 02:33 pm ET Updated May 11, 2013

A Civil Rights Freedom Rider Returns to Montgomery, Ala.

A few weeks ago I joined Congressman and RFK Speak Truth To Power defender John Lewis as he returned to First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, site of a brutal night in civil rights history. As Freedom Riders in 1961, Lewis and a dozen companions traveled by bus from Washington, D.C. through the segregated south, crossing the color line at drinking fountains, restrooms, and lunch counters as they went. As they approached Montgomery, my father, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, demanded police protection for the Riders. But when the bus crossed the city lines, the state police withdrew and city police watched as a KKK-led mob viciously beat the Riders with bats and iron pipes. That night, President Kennedy called out the National Guard to protect 1,500 supporters huddled inside First Baptist Church praying for the Freedom Riders, as a white mob, 3,000 strong, hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails through the stained glass windows.

We gathered at First Baptist's, and John Lewis recounted this harrowing tale. The current Montgomery police chief Kevin Murphy rose to his feet. He apologized on behalf of the Montgomery Police Department. Murphy then took the badge off his uniform and offered it to the man his predecessors had beaten nearly to death. Chief Murphy said, "Congressman Lewis, when you got off the bus here in 1961, you didn't have a friend in the police department. I want you to know that you have friends in the Montgomery Police Department today."

We witnessed holiness in that sanctuary -- holiness in the form of reconciliation which gives hope to ongoing struggles for justice and peace -- and a reminder to me of why we are dedicated to carrying forward Robert Kennedy's quest to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world.

What I saw happen between John Lewis and Chief Murphy wasn't just a "ripple of hope," it was the current my father promised those ripples would become: a force "capable of sweeping down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance." Two weeks ago in Montgomery, a few more pieces of one of those walls came crumbling down.

I want to thank our friends at the Faith and Politics Institute for organizing the annual Civil Rights Pilgrimage and creating the space for the healing we witnessed that day.

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