This interview is being reprinted without permission from NewsWeek magazine, June 18th 2007.
The sheriff behind "Bloody Sunday" is dead. John Lewis recalls his old foe, and a day that changed America forever.
On march 7, 1965, some 600 men and women, black and white, headed east out of Selma, Ala., walking U.S. Highway 80 toward Montgomery in search of justice. Their efforts to register black voters three weeks earlier had been thwarted by Selma police. Six blocks into their march, as they walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the civil rights champions found themselves facing state troopers and members of the Dallas County Sheriff's Department. With the news media watching, Sheriff James Clark ordered his men to attack the peaceful demonstrators, who were beaten, tear gassed and trampled. The shocking assault, known as "Bloody Sunday", proved a turing point in the civil rights struggle.
Rep. John Lewis of Georgia was beaten that day; he still bears the scars. NEWSWEEK's Alexandra Gekas spoke with him about Sheriff Clark, who died June 4.
GEKAS: What was your first reaction when you heard that Sheriff Clark had died?LEWIS: I was sorry and sad to hear that Sheriff Jim Clark had passed away. I remember meeting him on several occasions, going back to the mid-1960s- being arrested by him and pushed around by him, so I can never forget that. The movement was like a play, it was like a drama, and we all had a role to play. And Sheriff Clark had a role, too. I don't know if history tracked us down, but we did our best to do what was right and fair. But I tell you, he was a mean man. I've heard he had an intimidating presence. What did he look like? He wore a gun on one hip, and he wore a nightstick on the other. He had a button that said NEVER in response to our song "We Shall Overcome", and he carried a cattle prod, which he used often.
What kind of interactioins did you have with Sheriff Clark? I remember being arrested by him in January 1965 when I was leading a froup of black men and women to the courthouse to get a copy of the so-called literacy test to try to pass so they could vote. He said to me, "John Lewis, you are an outsider and the lowest form of humanity." And you could see he was shaking with rage. ANd I looked at him and I said, "Imay be an agitator, but I'm not an outsider- I live 90 miles away. And I'm going to stay here until these people are allowed to register to vote." On another occasion there was a woman named Annie Cooper, a black woman who was standing in line trying to register. And he grabbed her, and she raised her arm with her purse to try to ward off the blow, and he knocked her down on the pavement and put his foot in her chest. When you walked on that bridge in Selma, did you have any idea what might happen? I thought we would be arrested and taken to jail. I had no idea, and I don't think any of us had any idea, that we would be beaten, that we would be trampled by horses, that there would be tear gas. I had a backpack with me. It had two books in it because I wanted to have something to read in jail. I had an apple and an orange because I wanted something to eat. And I had a toothbrush and toothpaste. Even today, when I see the video and the stills and see myself being knocked down, it is still so unbelievable and so unreal that anything like that could happen in America. When was the last time you saw Sheriff Clark? The last time was in Selma during the spring of 1965. After the Voting Rights Act was passed and more black people got registered, there was an election in 1966. A coalition of black and white voters defeated him and he sort of left town. I think in Selma, there a tremendous amount of fear. Certainly the blacks were afraid him, but I think a lot of local whites were afraid of Sheriff Clark, too. Did he ever apologize for his actions, or express any remorse? No, he never did. I know there were press people that tried to interview him in a little town near where he died, and he never, ever showed any sense of remorse. HE even told one reporter that he didn't beat John Lewis, that he never his anyone, that some of us were beaten because we were trying to date some of the local people's wives and girlfriends. He was never able to see the light; he was just never able to come around. What would you have said to him if you had met again before he died? I would have said, "Sheriff, good to see you, but tell me, why did you do what you did? Why did you beat so many people, harass and abuse the rights of so many people?" We had a right to march and we had a right to go down to the courthouse, and he guarded it like it was his home. To some extent it was the brutality of people like Sheriff Clark that brought the country around on civil rights. I think we have to give a lot of credit to Clark and other people who beat us because Americans were able to see the contrast. They saw unbelievable, brave, courageous people believing in a dream and participating in nonviolence being brutalized. And it ws the contrast that I think did change America and hasten the day of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. How has America changed since those days? We live in a different coiuntry, a much better country. To me it's unbelievable that you have tow of the major contenders for the president as an African-American and a woman. That would have been unheard of in 1965. I think what happened in Selma and on the bridge opened up the political process for all of our citizens to get in.