Lewis was at the head of the long double-file line. He wore a tan raincoat and carried a knapsack containing a book and a couple of pieces of fruit, just in case he got hungry later in jail. The protesters were facing off against countless blue-helmeted Alabama state troops armed with whips and truncheons. Lewis saw one trooper with a rubber hose wrapped in barbed wire. The streets were lined with “about a hundred whites, laughing and hollering, waving Confederate flags.” Lewis could hear one trooper’s horse snort and wheeze.
Given one minute to disperse by the troopers, Lewis had the protesters kneel in prayer. They would not leave. “And then they were upon us.” The troopers charged, and the first among them brought down a nightstick on the left side of Lewis’s skull. His legs gave way. “I really thought I was going to die,” he said. He curled up on the ground, as he had been trained, in a “prayer for protection” position.” The trooper hit him again. And then came the canisters of tear gas. His skull fractured, his coat a mess of mud and blood, Lewis refused to go to the hospital. Barely conscious, he reached Brown Chapel, the headquarters of the movement, ascended to the pulpit, and told those gathered, many of them still gasping from the tear gas, “I don’t know how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam. I don’t see how he can send troops to the Congo. I don’t see how he can send troops to Africa, and he can’t send troops to Selma, Alabama. Next time we march, we may have to keep going when we get to Montgomery. We may have to go on to Washington.”
That night, an audience of forty-eight million people watched a fifteen-minute report on Selma. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had urged civil-rights leaders to force his hand if they wanted him to support a voting-rights bill, now saw that it was time to promote one. On national television, he compared Selma to Lexington and Concord as a “turning point in man’s unending search for freedom.” And the Voting Rights Act—now under assault in many ways—became law.
Keep on tweeting, Illegitimate One.