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Why I march: From 1963 to today

By Rep. John Lewis

Sunday August 28, 2016

Today is the 53rd anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. I was the youngest speaker at that march, and that day I was filled with a sense of righteous indignation that nearly 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, black men and women still didn’t have the right to vote.

At that time, many of us were being jailed as we fought for our rights. I told the hundreds of thousands of people in Washington that day, “We do not want to go to jail. But we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace.”

Fifty-three years later, the right to vote is still the most powerful nonviolent tool of transformation we have in our society. In 2016, we must use it to elect Hillary Clinton as our next president.

In this election, we’ve seen old, rejected ideas of division and hatred rear their ugly heads. We’ve seen aspirational immigrants called criminals and rapists. We’ve heard hardworking young African Americans smeared as violent. We’ve even seen insults hurled at the Gold Star parents of a young Muslim American who gave his life in service to our country.

We can now clearly understand that there are forces in this country that want to take us back. We don’t want to go back. We want to move this country forward.

So we must vote in this election like we have never voted before.

In 1965, when the March on Washington and even the Civil Rights Act still didn’t bring the right to vote to all Americans, the Reverend Hosea Williams and I set out to lead a march from Selma to Montgomery on a day that would come to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”

At that time, African Americans were made to take a so-called “literacy test” before we were permitted to register to vote. Some people were asked to count the number of bubbles on a bar of soap or the number of jelly beans in a jar. Black lawyers, doctors, and college professors were publicly humiliated and told they failed the test. That was 95 years after the 15th Amendment had been ratified, and not a single member of my family had ever successfully registered to vote. Only 2 percent of African Americans in Selma were registered to vote.

So we decided we had to march. But when we reached the top of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and saw the wall of state troopers and a posse of men deputized that morning to oppose us with horses, nightsticks, and bullwhips, I realized I might not leave that bridge alive.

In the years since that march, I’ve been asked many times why I didn’t turn back. Why, in the face of such violence, did I keep marching forward?

The only answer I know is that in my mind, that day, we didn’t have a choice. We’d been tracked down by what I call the spirit of history. We became like trees planted by rivers of water. Our roots were anchored. And so we marched.

When a state trooper hit me in the head with a nightstick and fractured my skull, I thought I saw Death on that bridge. I still don’t know how I made it back to the church where we’d started. But after I spent a night in the hospital, I knew the only thing for me to do was get up and try again.

Two weeks later, 2,000 of us began our march from Selma again. By the time we arrived in Montgomery, there were more than 30,000 of us—black, white, Christian, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, men, women, children—all marching together to demand our right to vote.

It’s been more than 50 years now. We’ve made tremendous progress, but there are those who still try to turn us back. To strip down our rights, to deny us our dignity, and turn us against each other. But I know we won’t let them. We must keep marching forward.

We march for all our brothers and sisters to be judged not by the place of our birth, the color of our skin, or the faith we practice, but by the content of our characters. We march for the black men and women who’ve lost their lives to gun violence and police violence—and we march for the police officers who kiss their children goodbye knowing they might never come home. We march for 26 people at an elementary school in Newtown, and we march for 49 people celebrating their pride at a club in Orlando. We march for a brave young Army captain named Humayun Khan whose parents would not keep their silence.

I bled for Dr. King’s dream. He gave his life for it. We’re not going to let anyone rip away our progress.

We knew on that bridge in Selma that we were staring down a pivotal moment in history. I believe the same is true in 2016.

So in this moment, I ask you to march with me—and I implore you to exercise the right to vote that I and others fought so hard for. I believe that Hillary will work to take our country to another place, a better place. That’s why I choose to fight with her. But I learned in Selma that you can’t win these fights alone. A few hundred people on a bridge can withstand a brutal beating, but 30,000 can march to Montgomery and make a nation hear us.

In the face of oppression and injustice, of division and hate, we cannot be silent. We must take a stand. We must see the path forward, and we must march together.

Nadia Garnett

National African American Vote Director

Hillary for America