Black leaders reflect on John Lewis, racial equality ahead of Biden’s Bloody Sunday speech

Joe Biden will deliver a speech in Selma, Alabama, to recognize the 58th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march known as Bloody Sunday.

As President Joe Biden prepares to travel to Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the 58th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Democratic leaders and activists are reflecting on the state of voting rights and racial equality, and the legacy of late civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis.

Biden will deliver remarks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and participate in the annual commemorative bridge crossing event on Sunday. In his remarks, the president will argue that protecting voting rights is integral to delivering economic justice and civil rights for Black Americans today, according to the White House.

President Joe Biden and John Lewis during Bloody Sunday march. (Photo: Getty Images)

Nearly six decades ago, civil rights leaders led by a young Lewis were brutally attacked by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as they marched from Selma to the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery to protest voter suppression and racial inequality. Lewis notably suffered a skull fracture from the police attack and nearly lost his life.

When theGrio asked about the president’s visit to Selma during Thursday’s White House briefing, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre noted that Biden accompanied then-Congressman Lewis during the annual civil rights commemorative event in 2019. The Georgia lawmaker died of cancer a year later.

“It was an honor for him to do that,” said Jean-Pierre, the first Black person to serve as White House press secretary. “If you think about how the President got involved in politics, it was very much connected to the civil rights movement. So this is important to the President.”

The Biden spokesperson added that it’s important to “continue to remember those who fought very hard for the rights of many Americans.”

Ahead of Biden’s remarks, a congressional delegation of leaders and community members honored Lewis and martyrs of the civil rights movement on Friday during an annual wreath-laying ceremony at the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery. Before his death in 2020, Lewis led a bipartisan congressional delegation to the city and each year personally laid the symbolic wreath on the Civil Rights Memorial.

The memorial was designed by Maya Lin and features the names of 41 people killed in the civil rights movement. 

The Civil Rights Memorial, designed by Maya Lin, honours 40 individuals who died fighting for equal rights (between 1954 and 1968) on 3rd March 2020 in Montgomery, Alabama, United States. (photo by Barry Lewis/InPictures via Getty Images)

The wreath-laying ceremony resumed this year for the first time since Lewis’ death. Tafeni English, director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center, laid the wreath, this time to honor the 41 martyrs in addition to Lewis.

“He would always say I have to step foot inside [the memorial center] because we never know if it will be our last time,” English told theGrio while reflecting on the last ceremony Lewis attended.

English said Lewis also made sure to bring a group of young people to participate in the tradition.

“It goes back to something Coretta Scott King said, which is we win these movements from generation to generation — and he very much understood that,” she said.

After Biden’s remarks on Sunday, he will join members of Congress, civil rights leaders and community members in the traditional march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Congresswoman Terri Sewell, who represents Alabama’s 7th Congressional District including Selma, told theGrio, “one cannot walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge without invoking the memory of John Lewis and the foot soldiers.” 

“I think that John’s legacy looms large as we commemorate the 58th anniversary of Bloody Sunday,” she said. “For me, every time I think about giving up, I think about John’s words. If you see something that’s not just, not right, we all have a moral responsibility to do something about it.”

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., stands on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in between television interviews on Feb. 14, 2015. Rep. Lewis was beaten by police on the bridge on “Bloody Sunday” 50 years ago on March 7, 1965, during an attempted march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sewell said Biden’s visit to Selma is also significant for her district after the city was ravaged by a tornado in January that destroyed or damaged 6,000 properties. Biden issued a declaration within days and provided federal assistance.

Sewell sees the president’s visit as sending a message to Selma residents that “we are not alone.”

“So many of us who grew up in Selma, Alabama, feel as if the world comes to Selma to commemorate what happened on that bridge,” she told theGrio. “We are a declining and decaying city, and we need help. It’s not enough to just come and walk across the bridge and keep on walking.”

Sewell, who noted the trillions of federal dollars available to states from landmark legislation signed into law by Biden, added: “There is transformational money, and my hope is that we as a community can come together and do a long-term strategic plan and leverage this opportunity [and] turn this disaster into an opportunity for us to build back better.”

Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., poses on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on Feb. 15, 2015. Rep. Sewell represents Alabama’s 7th Congressional district, which includes Selma. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Svante Myrick, president and CEO of the progressive advocacy group People For the American Way, commended Biden for his trip to Selma and his commitment to the Black community.

“He’s certainly exceeded my expectations,” Myrick told theGrio. “He’s been a tremendous friend and ally of the Black community in particular when it comes to voting rights, not to mention, student debt relief and a host of other economic issues.”

The social justice leader said that in addition to calling for passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — which Biden did several times in the last session of Congress — he would also like to hear the president discuss the “attacks” on Black history courses in public classrooms by Republican leaders like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Myrick, who also named former President Donald Trump, described the GOP leaders as “far-right extremist politicians who are trying to weaken and water down the Black history curriculum in our schools and attempt to censor and intimidate and bully teachers to stop them from teaching the true history of our country.”

The former mayor of Ithaca, New York, said the recent targeting of Black history in schools is “an insidious attack on our democracy.” Myrick said he sees a direct connection between censuring Black history and voting rights.

“Restricting access to information is the route to disenfranchise and misinform voters,” he said. “So I do hope President Biden takes a minute to talk about those attacks on our educational system.”

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