Lewis speaks directly to the camera, off the cuff, recounting the day. He starts slow, but what he says builds unselfconsciously and becomes riveting in a way that sounds not at all like a Brian Williams or a Bill O’Reilly story.
He was 25 years old, walking with Martin Luther King Jr. and 600 others on a planned 50-mile demonstration-march from Selma to the state capital Montgomery, where they would demand full voting rights for black residents of the state who had been disenfranchised for a hundred years after the Civil War ended through the use of myriad humiliating poll tests. The marchers were stopped at the southern edge of Selma, lined up together on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where police in riot gear demanded the crowd break up and go home.
“And the major said ‘Troopers advance!’ and you saw these men putting on their gas masks, and they came toward us, beating us with their night sticks and bull whips, trampling us with horses, and releasing the tear gas. I was hit, beaten, knocked down, left bloody, unconscious. I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die… But because of what happened in Selma, there was a sense of righteous indignation… President Johnson made one of the most meaningful speeches any American president had made in modern times when he introduced the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Three months later the Voting Rights Act was passed and signed into law.”
The Jefferson County Board of Education in Colorado made news last fall for proposing to rewrite Advanced Placement U.S. History course curriculum in order to make it “more patriotic,” mainly by de-emphasizing historical conflict and playing up the value of respect for authority. The proposal sparked protests on the part of parents and teachers and students and has been effectively dropped. But the proposed curriculum rewrite dovetailed with similar attempts in other states, like Oklahoma, where concerns swept through the legislature that leftist-secular instruction was disillusioning students, leading lawmakers to consider banning Advanced Placement courses altogether.
Lewis, understandably, has a different view of protest and about standing up to authority and how they make for better citizens and a better country.
“I say to you as young people: You too can do something. You too can a find a way to get in the way — to get in good trouble, necessary trouble. I was arrested and jailed 40 times during the 1960s. But I never gave up. I never became bitter or hostile… You have a moral obligation to stand up, speak up, speak out and make our country, our world, a better place. We can do it.”