The City of Selma, Historic Tabernacle Baptist Church in Selma and the Selma Center for Non-violence, Truth and Reconciliation sponsored Dr. Bernard Lafayette Jr. Day on Saturday, May 14, 2022 in Selma. The day was to honor the civil rights and voting rights pioneer who has dedicated his life to promoting non-violence as a means toward social, political and economic justice for oppressed people.
The day in Selma included a voting rights march and parade; voting rights festival; re-enactment of the first Mass Meeting of the Civil Rights era at Tabernacle Baptist Church and a Voting Rights banquet at the Jemison-Owens Gymnasium of Selma University. The theme of the day was “Voting Rights and Me”.
Dr. Bernard Lafayette, Jr. helped to lay the foundation for himself, Dr. M. L. King, Jr. and other leaders and footsoldiers of the 1960s Voting Rights Movement in Selma, AL. Because of him Selma’s underground voting rights movement from the 1920’s became publicly visible upon the death of decades-long activist Mr. S W Boynton.
Dr. Lafayette and Mrs. Amelia Boynton organized the first mass meeting/memorial service of the Voting Rights Movement at Tabernacle Baptist Church as daringly invited by then pastor, Dr. Louis Lloyd Anderson. The date was May 14, 1963. Dr. Lafayette, a freedom rider and co-founder of SNCC, organized the youth of Selma and surrounding areas from 1963 to 1965 that led to “Bloody Sunday,” “Turn-Around-Tuesday” and the “Selma to Montgomery March” which brought about the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Dr. Lafayette is now 81 years old; yet he continues to train all peoples in Kingian nonviolence, at the Selma Center for Non-violence, Truth and Reconciliation. This humble, gentle giant deserves overdue thanks for his lifetime of sacrifices for civil rights.
Fifty-five years ago, Alabama state troopers beat John Lewis and hundreds of protesters as they crossed Edmund Pettus Bridge. On Sunday, troopers saluted the late civil rights leader after he made his final journey across the span. The body of the 17-term congressman was carried on a horse-drawn caisson from Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church to the bridge, where rose petals had been scattered. Two horses and a driver led the flag-draped casket, which paused a few minutes on the bridge above the Alabama River. On the other side, the words of “We Shall Overcome” could be heard as family, hundreds of onlookers and several troopers greeted Lewis. A military honor guard moved the casket from the caisson to a hearse for the trip to Montgomery. Alabama state police were accompanying Lewis to the state capital. “It is poetic justice that this time Alabama state troopers will see John to his safety,” Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.) said. The ceremony is the second day in six days of tributes to the son of sharecroppers, fighter for civil rights and lawmaker widely hailed as the conscience of Congress. Lewis (D-Ga.) died July 17 at the age of 80 after a six-month battle with pancreatic cancer. The honors began Saturday in Lewis’s birthplace of Troy, Ala., with prayers, family recollections, songs and a plea to carry on his legacy of fighting for a more just society. It will end Thursday with a service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached. In between, Lewis will lie in state in two state capitols — Montgomery and Atlanta — and in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, where the nation has paid tribute to past presidents, lawmakers and other distinguished citizens, including civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks in 2005. Lewis’s crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge 55 years ago was a defining moment for a nation and the young activist. The ceremony on Sunday comes amid a national reckoning over systemic racism in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, a black man, and weeks of protests nationwide. On March 7, 1965, Lewis, then the 25-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, led about 600 protesters in a march across the bridge for civil rights. State troopers beat the demonstrators, and Lewis suffered a cracked skull on what became known as Bloody Sunday. “I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick,” Lewis said decades later. “I really believe to this day that I saw death.” Within months, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which was meant to end the obstacles preventing black people from voting. John Lewis nearly died on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Now it may be renamed for him. In subsequent years, Lewis has led an annual march of Republicans and Democrats, current and former presidents across the bridge. Most notably, in 2015 on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, he walked across the span with the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama; former president George W. Bush; and many of the foot soldiers of the 1960s movement. “We just need to open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us,” Obama said. “We know the march is not yet over; we know the race is not yet won. We know reaching that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character requires admitting as much.” In the days after Lewis’s death, there have been renewed calls for Congress to act on voting rights and name the legislation in Lewis’s honor. In 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated a crucial component of the landmark law, ruling that Congress had not taken into account the nation’s racial progress when citing certain states for federal oversight. The House passed legislation in December to restore those protections, but the bill has languished in the GOP-led Senate. There also have been calls to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge for Lewis. Pettus was a Confederate officer and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. At the service at Troy University on Saturday, Lewis’s flag-draped casket was carried by men in masks, and attendees were seated six feet apart, a reminder that the country is still in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly 150,000 Americans, a disproportionate number from low-income, minority communities. Lewis’s brother Freddie Lewis implored people to continue his legacy by voting. His sister Rosa Mae Tyner recalled that he “lived with the never-ending desire to help others.” Another brother, Henry “Grant” Lewis, said Lewis “would gravitate toward the least of us.” The late congressman’s young great-nephew, Jaxon Lewis Brewster, called Lewis his “hero.” “It’s up to us to keep his legacy alive,” the 7-year-old said. Henry Grant Lewis recalled his last conversation with his brother the night before he died. Lewis was, as always, concerned about others, asking how the family was doing and wanting his brother to tell them he’d asked about them. Henry Grant Lewis also shared an exchange he’d had with his brother when he was first sworn in to Congress. The new lawmaker looked up at his family watching from the gallery above the House floor and flashed his brother a thumbs up. Afterward, Henry Grant Lewis asked his brother what he was thinking when he made that gesture. “I was thinking,” he recalled his brother saying, “this is a long way from the cotton fields of Alabama.”
Spiver W. Gordon presents certificate to Rev. John Kennard, Guest Speaker at the 49th anniversary program. Several of the program participants joined them at the podium.
On Saturday, July 28, 2018, about 50 residents of Greene County, met at the Morrow-Brown Community Center in Branch Heights to celebrate the 49th anniversary of the July 29, 1969 Special Election. This election resulted in a victory for four African-American candidates for the Greene County Commission and two for the Board of Education, which meant Black control of county government for the first time since Reconstruction. The Special Election of 1969 was ordered by the U. S. Supreme Court in a case brought by Greene County indicating that local officials had deliberately left Black candidates supported by the National Democratic Party (NDPA) off the 1968 ballot. In the 1970 election, William M. Branch was elected Probate Judge and Thomas Gilmore was elected Sheriff of Greene County completing a sweep of almost all public offices in the county. The Greene County Special Election of 1969 was heralded as a great victory for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in an Alabama Black Belt county that contributed marchers to the ‘Bloody Sunday’ and subsequent marches in Selma. A New York Times headline on July 30, 1969 proclaimed: Election of 6 Alabama Negroes hailed as ‘Giant Political Step’. The Alabama Civil Rights Museum under the leadership of Spiver W. Gordon sponsored Saturday’s program, which included a display of photos, and programs from the museum’s collection. Rev. John Kennard was the Guest Speaker. Levi Morrow Jr. spoke about the origins and planning that went into the construction of Branch Heights. District 1 Commissioner Lester Brown and others made remarks to commemorate the occasion.
“This is not only a celebration and commemoration of the past but a continuation of the movement and a statement of the struggle for racial, social, political and economic justice that still face us,” said Faya Rose Toure on Sunday at the pre-march rally on the steps of Browns Chapel Church in Selma, Alabama.
There were 40 events during the March 3-7 weekend that comprise the Bridge Crossing Jubilee in Selma, to commemorate the 51st anniversary of the marches on Bloody Sunday and subsequent marches in 1965 which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.There was a Saturday breakfast to honor footsoldiers of the movement, a parade, a beauty pageant, a Sunday Unity Breakfast, Freedom Flame Banquet, golf tournament, numerous workshops and presentations on history and current struggles. At the Unity Breakfast, Congresswomen Terri Sewell presented a replica of the Footsoldiers Gold Medal, recently awarded by Congress to participants in the 1965 marches, to Hank and Faya Rose Sanders. The Sanders have developed the Bridge Crossing Jubilee and Museum over the past three decades to help people to understand the history of the voting rights struggle in America and continue to work to preserve these basic democratic rights for all people. They said they would place the medal on exhibit in the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma.
Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina was the keynote speaker at the Unity Breakfast. Clyburn said, “If we fail to learn the lessons of history, then they will repeat. We are seeing some similarities now in our Presidential election to the elections in Germany in 1932, when a demagogue was first elected to office and then became a fascist dictator.”
“Things that happened before can happen again. Things do not happen in a linear fashion. They go one way and then swing back another way. The people must be ready to intervene and participate in the process.
“Last year, we were here with a bi-partisan group of 100 Congress people and the President for the Fiftieth Anniversary but the Voting Rights Advancement Act has not had a hearing and not moved one inch since last year. People will show up for the celebration but not the work,” said Clyburn.
He urged the audience especially young people, not to give up. “Most of us have a resume which lists only the things that went right – not the times that things didn’t go as planned.
I ran for Congress, three times and lost. I did not win until the fourth time. Many people said three strikes and you’re out, but those are baseball rules. There are no numerical limits on trying in life,” said Clyburn.
The names of many young Black people killed by police in the past year came up as rallying calls for actions at various times during the weekend. The case of Gregory Gunn who was shot five times, last month, by police in Montgomery was mentioned in the criminal justice workshops. Rev. Kenneth Glascow of The Ordinary People’s Organization (TOPS) introduced the mothers of Christopher Jerome Thomas of Dothan, Alabama and Cameron Massey of Eufala, Alabama. Glascow led a “backwards march” across the bridge, before the larger march, to call attention to the inequities in the justice system and the unresolved pending cases of police violence and misconduct toward Black people.
In a Saturday workshop at the Center for Non-violence, Truth and Reconciliation, the speaker was Bryant Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative. He spoke about his life experience of working to represent and exonerate prisoners on death row in Alabama. He equated the current killing of young Black men with the prior era of lynching in the South between Reconstruction and the end of World War II. He said over 400 Black people were lynched around the South. His organization is in the process of placing historical markers at the places where these lynchings occurred.
On Sunday afternoon about 10,000 marchers, including a large contingent of members from Alabama Masonic Lodges and their auxiliaries participated in the reenactment march from Browns Chapel Church through Selma and across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. A post march rally was held in the Memorial Park on the east side of the bridge.