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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John Lewis, November 20, 1973. Interview A-0073. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Mississippi Freedom Summer and the Selma March as SNCC's major efforts

Lewis describes the major activities of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during his tenure as the organization's chairman. Arguing that SNCC adopted the slogan "one man, one vote" after the 1963 March on Washington, Lewis argues that the work SNCC did during the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 and in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 constituted SNCC's major efforts in the movement. The majority of this passage focuses on Lewis's belief that the Selma March in 1965 was directly resonsible for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and that it also brought tensions between SNCC and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to a head. In addition, he describes the march from Selma to Montgomery, particularly the violent opposition it faced, in detail.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John Lewis, November 20, 1973. Interview A-0073. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
How would you describe the major activities of SNCC, especially when you were present?
JOHN LEWIS:
The major effort of SNCC during the period of 1963 to the early part of 1966 are probably the most significant effort, I think, was probably the Mississippi summer project of 1964. and the Selma effort. You see, SNCC first went into Selma, for example, in 1962. The first SNCC organizer went into Selma with just trying to make some contacts based on a limited amount of research. In 1962, only 2.1% of the black people in Selma were registered to vote. And it was at this point in the history of SNCC, an attempt to organize the people around the right to vote. SNCC was one of the organizations which received some support from the first VEP. So, SNCC people working in Selma in 1962 and in Mississippi and also in Albany and southwest Georgia, did receive some sort of funding from Voter Education to try to help organize local voter registration. I think the effort of SNCC to dramatize SNCC interest and involvement in politics came with the March on Washington in 1963 in the speech that I gave. We emphasized the whole question of the vote. Tried to make the point that Kennedy opposed Civil Rights legislation, would not make it possible for people without a sixth grade education . . . would make it almost impossible for them to register and to be considered literate. His bill said, in effect, that someone with a sixth grade education should be considered literate, but it didn't go as far as we wanted it to go. That's when we atarted this whole idea of one man, one vote is the African cry; it should be ours too. It must be ours. And that became a slogan of SNCC. It was on our literature on our letter-head, on posters, on everything. And in late September of '63, after the bombing in Birmingham of the church-September 16th was the day of the bombing-some of us went straight from the funeral of the four girls in Birmingham to Selma where we atarted organizing the whole push around the right to vote. On October 18th, 1963 we had one of the first, what we call "Freedom Day", in Selma. For more than eight hundred black people stood in line all day at the County Court House to register to vote. By the end of the day only five people had passed through that line. That effort sort of got side-tracked because at the same time we were planning for the big effort in Mississippi-the Mississippi Summer Project of '64. And at the same time with all of the concentration in Mississippi during the early part of '64 we did have some limited work going on in Selma. But I would say that the Sema effort and the Mississippi summer . . . .
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
When was the confrontation in Selma?
JOHN LEWIS:
March 7th, 1965. We had what had been a series of . . . .
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
You said that the voting rights act resulted directly from this?
JOHN LEWIS:
If there is any single event that gave birth to the Voter Rights Act, it was the Selma effort. March 7th was just sort of a combination of things. We had had a series of protests, organizing efforts in Selma in late '63 and some in '64 and '65. I will never forget when therewas some attempt on the part of SNCC as an organization not to bring SCLC in. But the local people-Mrs. Boynton head of Dallas County Voters' League, Rev. Frederick Reid, who is now a member of the Selma City Council-these two emerging local leaders of Selma wanted to bring Dr. King in. Some of the people in SNCC felt that Martin King shouldn't come into Sema and some of us felt that he should. I was one of the ones that felt that he should, that he would bring some attention to the problem and help dramatize the problem.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
What was the opposition's feeling?
JOHN LEWIS:
Well, some people felt that, you know, SNCC had been there since 1962 working and organizing and we have a vital local movement going and why, at this , should an organization like SCLC come in. Some people felt that SCLC operated on one level and sort of a crisis oriented and a mass effort for a particular day or a particular week to dramatize and then they were gone. People in SNCC felt that you stay there and you work and you organize and you bring the community along. That you don't go in and do for the community but you bring the community to a point where it can do for itself. The people did make a decision to invite SCLC in and they came and joined in. And they started a series of dramatic demonstrations which culminated in the March 7th. But even in the early part of January, we had one of the first mass demonstrations. Jim Clark, on that particular day in January said to me, I was leading that particular march, "John Lewis, you are an outside agitator." I didn't consider myself an outside agitator because I am a native of Alabama. Did grow up truthfully all the way from Selma about ninety miles. "You are an outside agitator and an agitator is the lowest form of humanity," and just sort of walked away and we kept walking toward the County Court House and got arrested. That type of action kept going. In the meantime, it was not just a demonstration going on in the city of Selma. There were many SNCC people and SCLC people working out in the rural part of the country organizing a community group trying to get people to come down to the Court House to register. After the violence in Selma, and the violence in Perry County and Merrian, Alabama where Jackson was shot, some people felt that we had to march on Montgomery. Made a decision to march. Some people opposed the march and some people supported it. We decided to march on March 7th, '65, but when I look back I'm really not sure on that particular day when a group of us about six hundred of us decided to march, whether we were literally prepared to march from Selma to Montgomery that day. Because we hadn't really made any plans as to where to stop along the way. We did have bags and knapsacks and that type of thing, but we hadn't made any plans to have food and necessary supplies along the way. We gathered together at Brown Chapel A. M. E. Church that Sunday afternoon about two o'clock. Dr. King for some reason didn't come to Selma that day. Andy Young, Hosea Williams, James Bevel from SCLC-they had to draw to find out what person from their organization would lead the march. I was leading the march from SNCC and Hosea represented SCLC, and we started marching. After we crossed the bridge, Governor Wallace in the meantime warned us that the march would not be allowed. But we insisted that we had to the right to march. We crossed the bridge and we met a sea of State Troopers. One of the State Troopers identified himself as Major Cloud and said on the bullhorn, "This is an unlawful march and it will not be allowed to continue. I give you three minutes to disperse." We waited the three minutes and just stood and when the three minutes were up he told the Troopers to advance and they had the helmets and the gas masks on and the bull whips and clubs. And they came in.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
How did you feel at that moment when you saw them coming?
JOHN LEWIS:
I felt frightened. I felt that we had to stay there. I felt that we had to stand there. There was something that was said and you couldn't turn back. We had to stay there and I didn't believe that the Troopers would do what they did, for some strange reason, but I felt that we had to stay there. And we stayed there. I remember, we were beaten.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
You got a fractured skull in that?
JOHN LEWIS:
Yes, I did.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Was that a single blow from a Trooper?
JOHN LEWIS:
A single blow apparently from a club, I guess, of a Trooper, but I felt like when that whole thing from the gas that this is really the end. I guess the greatest concern was also for the people. Most of the march was made of young teen-agers and women. A lot of the people had just left the church and came straight to Brown Chapel A. M. E. Church. It was a frightening moment, really terrifying.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Was that the most frightening moment you have ever had?
JOHN LEWIS:
Yes, without question. I think we were literally lucky, all of us, for no one to be seriously hurt or killed. You know, Sherrif Clark had a posse that he had organized. He had people with bull whips, with ropes running through the marchers on horses beating people. But people got together and I think that helped to electrify the black community in Selma and the whole area of Alabama. It had a tremendous impact on the country. People couldn't believe that that could happen. And the response of people, particularly people who had supported SNCC and SCLC all across the country . . . A series of demonstrations took place, I think, by that Tuesday by friends of SNCC in different cities. There were about eighty sympathy marchers. Protests had been organized; some people slipped into the Justice Department in Washington. The year that President Johnson served, his daughter couldn't sleep because people had been singing, "We shall overcome" all around the White House.