John Lewis calls Edmund Pettus Bridge a 'sacred place'

John Lewis talks of Bloody Sunday and the events of Selma 50 years ago

Although John Lewis has represented an Atlanta-area congressional district for nearly three decades, rural Alabama is where his roots lie.

It's where he was born and raised and where, in March 1965, he helped lead marches from Selma, Ala., to the state capital, Montgomery, in a defiant quest for African Americans to exercise the right to vote.

On March 7, 1965, the day that became known as Bloody Sunday, the 25-year-old Lewis was among dozens of black demonstrators who were tear-gassed and beaten as they crossed Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge in what was intended as a peaceful march for civil rights. The violence focused international attention on Selma, brought fresh waves of people from around the nation to join the protests, and galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was signed into law in August of that year. 

"They started beating us with nightsticks, trampling us with horses and releasing the tear gas. I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a night stick. I lost consciousness," Lewis said in a "Meet the Press" interview that aired Sunday. "Fifty years later, I don't recall how I made it back across that bridge to the little church that we had left from."

Lewis called the bridge -- named in honor of a Confederate general and Ku Klux Klansman -- an "almost sacred place."

"Because that's where some of us gave a little blood and where some people almost died," he said. 

On Saturday, Lewis was joined by President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the Pettus Bridge in a ceremony honoring the historic event in the civil rights movement. 

"We come to Selma to be renewed. We come to be inspired. We come to be reminded that we must do the work that justice and equality calls us to do," Lewis said at the ceremony, while also noting that, 50 years later, he was standing next to the nation's first black president. 

Obama, who joined a 42nd anniversary march in Selma in 2007 when he was a senator and presidential hopeful, called Lewis his hero.

"We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing," Obama said in his remarks. "We are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit. That’s why someone like John Lewis at the ripe old age of 25 could lead a mighty march."

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