THE BLOG
03/18/2014 11:19 am ET | Updated May 18, 2014

Can The Lessons of John Lewis Sustain the Modern Civil Rights Movement?

On a breezy March Sunday in Brown Chapel Church in Selma, Alabama, John Lewis began to preach.

Brown Chapel was the starting point for the Selma to Montgomery marches that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If you closed your eyes for a minute, you could imagine Lewis and other civil rights workers 49 years earlier, worried about whether they would live through the day.

This March, Lewis led the 16th annual Faith and Politics Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage, a bipartisan tour of important places in the movement. He was joined by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, House WHIP Steny Hoyer, and other Congressmen and civic leaders. The trip culminated with Lewis leading the delegation in a walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the Selma passageway where he was infamously beaten by policemen in 1965.

This year's pilgrimage was based mostly in Mississippi and honored the 50-year anniversary of the Freedom Summer, when volunteers from the north came down to help African-American voters register to vote. The theme of the trip was, Never Forget. Never forget the brutality and terror that, just a generation ago, afflicted African Americans in the south.

Three of the most searing crimes of the 20th century occurred in Mississippi. The group heard from David Goodman, the brother of Andrew, who along with James Chaney and Michael Schwerner were murdered by a local sheriff and others in 1964, and from Myrlie Evers, the wife of Medgar Evers, the then-field secretary of the NAACP who was gunned down in 1963 in the carport next to his home while his family sobbed under their couch. Wheeler Parker is the cousin of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago boy visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi in 1955. Mr. Parker told us the harrowing story of how he was with Till when he whistled at a woman in a local convenience store, and when two men, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant (the husband of the woman), pulled the boy screaming from Mr. Parker's home, murdered him and dumped his body.

Throughout the trip, the group's leaders weaved in current events to remind us how far they believe the country has to go. There was plenty of talk about stop-and-frisk policing and how, in the last year, the killers of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis -- close in age to Emmett Till -- have both escaped murder convictions. While Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman are martyrs of an iconic Freedom Summer, state legislatures in more than 20 states are in the process of making it harder for African-Americans to vote. The U.S. Supreme Court crippled the Voting Rights Act that these volunteers fought for, and Congress has yet to fix it. As Mr. Parker said when describing the impact of his cousin's death, "laws can make you behave better, but they don't legislate the heart."

The pilgrimage was filled with irony for Lewis, a man who is now given a hero's welcome in a region where he used to live in constant fear for his life. The group showed up at the Evers home with a full police escort. This was his first time visiting the place where his close friend and colleague was murdered and Mr. Lewis was overcome with emotion and amazement. The night Evers was shot, no ambulance came to help him, and 51 years later, there were enough police officers to invade a small country. Later in the evening, the group visited the Governor's Mansion, where Lewis and Myrlie Evers were honored in the former home of rabid segregationist Ross Barnett. As a sign of the tangled emotions of the moment, William Winter, who served as a moderate Democratic Governor of Mississippi in the early 1980s, lamented the loss of generations of Mississippians to racial enmity.

How to make the lessons of the 20th Century live in the 21st, is the challenge for young people like me. Some things haven't changed much.

The statue honoring James Meredith, who integrated Ole Miss in 1962, was recently vandalized. While Mississippi has the largest number of African-American state legislators in the country, it still props up politicians like Chris McDaniel, a Senate candidate who retweeted the rants of White Supremacists and attended neo-confederate events.

Nearly the entire town of Selma came out to cheer Mr. Lewis as he walked across the Edmund Pettus bridge, yet just hours earlier, Congressman Hoyer went into an Alabama rest stop and found racial epithets scrawled in the men's room. He excoriated the manager, who promised to remove them.

A half century ago, Mr. Lewis would not have been able to use the same public bathroom as Mr. Hoyer. Now they can, but even with an African-American President, Mr. Lewis's life work remains unfinished.
"Once we leave here," Mr. Lewis said in his address to Brown Chapel. "I hope you're ready to ride."

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