John Lewis Remembers a Civil-Rights Nemesis

On the morning of 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. The civil-rights champions knew they were in for further conflict, but they did not yet know how much. Six blocks into their march, as they walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they found out. State troopers and members of the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department, some mounted on horseback with billy clubs and tear gas, had massed to shut the march down. In front of the news media, Selma Sheriff James Clark ordered his men to attack the peaceful demonstrators, who were beaten, tear-gassed and trampled. The melee, known as “Bloody Sunday,” proved a turning point in the civil-rights struggle, as Americans recoiled from the brutality demonstrated by Sheriff Clark and his men.

Rep. John Lewis of Georgia was one of the many demonstrators beaten on Bloody Sunday; he still bears the scars today. NEWSWEEK’s Alexandra Gekas spoke with Rep. Lewis about Sheriff Clark, who passed away June 4.

NEWSWEEK: What was your first reaction when you heard that Sheriff Clark had died?
John 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, and I guess he tried his best to do what he thought was right and fair. But I'll tell you, he was a mean man.

I've heard he had an intimidating presence. What did he look like?
He was not a small man. 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 interactions did you have with Sheriff Clark?
I remember being arrested by him in January 1965 when I was leading a group 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 met us at the top of the step and 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, with his uniform on including his cap. And I looked at him and I said, "I may 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." So he put us under arrest and took us to jail. On another occasion, we were at the courthouse and one of the young women who was one of the leaders, he started pushing her and pushed her and almost knocked down the rest of us down with her. On another occasion there was a woman named Annie Cooper, a black woman who was standing in line trying to register. And he grabbed at 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. On another occasion, there was a group of young people trying to march to the courthouse, and he … set them on a forced march, chasing them. He was probably one of the most difficult people in law enforcement that we had to deal with in the South.

When you walked onto that bridge in Selma, did you have any idea what might happen?
On Sunday, March 7, 1965, 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, because I knew I would be in jail with my friends and colleagues and I wanted to be able to brush my teeth. But I don't think any of us were prepared to be trampled and beaten and tear-gassed. 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 I interacted with him 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, back in 1963, there was a tremendous amount of fear. Certainly the blacks were afraid of 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 never asked to be forgiven for what he did. He even told one reporter that he didn't beat John Lewis, that he never hit anyone, that some of us were beaten because we were trying to date some of the local peoples’ wives and girlfriends. He was never able to see the light; he was just never able to come around. There were other people in Selma—the mayor—who called us troublemakers and agitators at the time, [who] came around and said he thought I was one of the bravest human beings he had ever known and if he had been black he would have been doing the same thing. And when we went back to Selma for an anniversary a few years ago as honorary mayor, he hosted a luncheon for us and gave me the keys to the city. Gov. [George] Wallace, who was a friend of Sheriff Clark, asked to be forgiven, but Sheriff Clark never did.

What would you say to James Clark 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. He would walk up to people and stick them with a cow prodder, he would use the nightstick to abuse people and hit people. Even today, I still don't understand how people could be so vicious and so mean to their fellow Americans for trying to exercise their constitutional rights.

To some extent it was the brutality of people like Sheriff Clark that brought the country around on civil rights. Is their some level of appreciation for what his actions did for the movement?
I can appreciate that. I think it was President Kennedy who said that if we ever passed a Civil Rights Act, and he was talking about the act he didn't live to see passed, he said we would have to give credit to Bull Connor. 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 beaten and brutalized. And it was the contrast that I think did change America and hasten the day of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. In early 1965, President [Lyndon] Johnson told Dr. [Martin Luther] King we didn't have the vote to pass the Voting Rights Act, but with the reaction of people like Sheriff Clark he created the environment to get the votes to pass the act. That cannot be denied.

How has America changed since those days?
We live in a different country, a much better country. The fear I saw in 1965, that fear is gone. People can register, they can vote, and many have been elected to responsible positions all across the South. To me it’s unbelievable that you have two 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, in the courthouse and on the bridge opened up the political process for all of our citizens to get in.