Friday, March 6, 2015

Selma March II; 'Our Military at its Best'

by Bill Doughty
John Lewis in 1965

President Lyndon B. Johnson, a World War II Navy veteran and Navy reservist, called for Navy divers to help search for missing victims of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Fifty years ago, after activists were gassed and beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on "Bloody Sunday," LBJ called in military resources to protect demonstrators.

The bridge was named for a Confederate general, Alabama Senator and KKK leader. It became a battlefield defended by Alabama state police against people who wanted equality and the right to vote. 
LBJ directed the military to protect the demonstrators who refused to give up their march for democratic ideals.

The second attempt to march across the bridge was a success and, according to Congressman John Lewis, a turning point in what he calls a revolution of values and ideas.

Two weeks earlier, Lewis was among those who were clubbed, gassed and trampled by horses. Recently, he told Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation that he thought he would die. But Lewis expressed his gratitude for the military's protection of the march from Selma to Montgomery. He also told Schieffer how extraordinary it was to hear FBI Director Comey voice his support for transparency and accountability of law enforcement.

LBJ's military was there "all along the way. People inspecting the bridges along the way. Guarding the camps at night. It was our military. It was our military at its best," Lewis said.

Demonstrators, white and black, marched peacefully for equality and against discrimination in the voting process, where African Americans were singled out for tests on literacy, knowledge or character in order to restrict their ability to register to vote.  They were forced to try to answer ridiculous questions like, "How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?" When they attempted to vote regardless, they were blocked or beaten.
In LBJ's speech before Congress on Voting Rights delivered March 15, 1965 he made several references to the military:
"At times, history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. 
"... As we meet here in this peaceful historic chamber tonight, men from the South, some of whom were at Iwo Jima, men from the North who have carried Old Glory to the far corners of the world and who brought it back without a stain on it, men from the east and from the west are all fighting together without regard to religion or color or region in Vietnam."
Congressman Lewis, who led the original march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago, and who is marching with Commander in Chief President Barack Obama this week, recounts his experience for young people in a graphic novel series called "March."
Book 1 starts with Lewis as a boy growing up in rural Alabama and takes us through his meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the death of Emmett Till, the activism of Rosa Parks, and interracial lunch counter demonstrations to achieve equality and integration.  Book 2 of "March" was recently published, and Book 3 is on its way.
In 2012, Lewis published "Across that Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change."

Douglas Brinkley, who wrote "Across that Bridge's" introduction, calls Lewis an "apostle of quiet strength." He says, "Every young person should read this homily of civility, a welcome antidote to the noisy chatter of self indulgence exemplified by the surge of me-me-me social media in our lives."

Lewis, himself, lives in the light of Dr. King. He writes with poetic flair:
"Lean toward the whisper of your own heart, discover the universal truth, and follow its dictates. Know the truth always leads to love and the perpetuation of peace. Its products are never bitterness and strife."
Navy veteran President Johnson shakes hands with Dr. King after signing Voting Rights Act.
Johnson seemed to listen to what Lincoln described as "the better angels of our nature" in LBJ's speech 50 years ago. He echoed the nonviolence themes of "we shall overcome," and he called for all Americans to live up to the ideals of the Constitution as he obviously considered his own place in history:
"We must preserve the right to free assembly ... We do have a right to protest. And a right to march under conditions that do not infringe the Constitutional rights of our neighbors. And I intend to protect all those rights as long as I am permitted to serve in this office.
"We will guard against violence, knowing it strikes from our hands the very weapons which we seek – progress, obedience to law, and belief in American values. In Selma, as elsewhere, we seek and pray for peace. We seek order, we seek unity, but we will not accept the peace of stifled rights or the order imposed by fear, or the unity that stifles protest – for peace cannot be purchased at the cost of liberty.
"I want to be the president who educated young children to the wonders of their world. I want to be the President who helped to feed the hungry and to prepare them to be taxpayers instead of tax eaters. I want to be the President who helped the poor to find their own way and who protected the right of every citizen to vote in every election. I want to be the President who helped to end hatred among his fellow men and who promoted love among the people of all races, all regions and all parties. I want to be the President who helped to end war among the brothers of this earth."
United States Congressman John Lewis was 23 years old, about the average age of a shipboard Sailor today, when he helped lead the march in Selma. 

The graphic novel "March" fittingly portrays him speaking to young people and explaining how he came to appreciate life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

His perspective on where we were, how far we've come and the role of the military in the defense of freedom is invaluable.

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