A look back: John Lewis talks to ABC13 about 'Bloody Sunday'

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- The movie "Selma," released earlier this year, showed audiences a part of civil rights history that many did not know. But Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Fiorenza of the Galveston-Houston Diocese lived that history, answering Martin Luther King's call to come to Selma, Alabama. He says, "I remember there were clergy from all over, people from all over."

Like millions, he'd watched the first attempt by marchers to cross the bridge in Selma on television, as they demanded voting rights for blacks. And he saw with horror the violent response by state troopers. Fiorenza said it sickened him, "But also it stirred up in our hearts a desire that we've got to do what we can to be a part of this. This movement to save the soul of America."

Congressman John Lewis was in his early 20's on March 7, 1965, helping to organize the march that came to be known as Bloody Sunday. And he was among those beaten by state troopers, suffering a fractured skull.

"I thought I saw death," he said. "I thought I was going to die on that bridge, but somehow I'm still here, I lived to complete the march from Selma to Montgomery, all 54 miles." That march took place two weeks later, under the watchful eyes of the federal government and the nation.

Like many young protestors, Lewis said he learned non-violence from leaders like King. "We had what you call our do's and dont's -- sit up straight, don't talk back, don't lash out, obey your leader."

He would use those lessons as he took part in virtually every major event in the civil rights movement from the student sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, to freedom rides on buses throughout the south, to the marches in Selma. And he said protestors like him knew the dangers, especially after seeing some die fighting for their rights.

He remembers that, "We signed letters, statements, like wills. We didn't know whether we would return or not. We were beaten, we were left bloody, but I was never ever afraid."

He also said, he never backed down. "You come to the point where you lose any sense of fear, you come to that point where you believe in something that's so good, so necessary, that you're prepared to die for it."

He's the only speaker still living from the March on Washington in August of 1963, when King stunned the nation with his searing "I have a dream" speech. Lewis was the youngest speaker to take the podium, as head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, also known as SNCC. He remembers being dumbfounded by the number of people who packed the Lincoln Memorial.

"We thought maybe 75,000 to 100,000," he remembers. "We didn't have any idea that it would be more than 250,000 people. Blacks, whites, Latino's, Asian Americans, people from the labor movement, religious community, students."

Fifty years later, he's still upholding the legacy now -- he's writing comic books for kids about the civil rights movement.

"I feel I have an obligation to do what I can, to tell the story and do what I can to inspire another generation."

Lewis was awarded the Medal of Freedom by the nation's first black President, something he never dreamed he'd see in his lifetime. And nearly 47 years later, he hasn't forgotten the man who inspired him or that dark day when Martin Luther King was killed. "I cried, I felt like I lost a brother, a friend, my hero, my leader."

Lewis reflects on what King's legacy has meant to his own remarkable life.

"I know one thing: I wouldn't be in the Congress today," he says. "He changed my life, he helped make me the person I am today. I'm so grateful for his leadership, for his vision. he taught us how to live and how to die," said Lewis.
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