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'Black In Selma' Author Reflects On The Long March Toward Civil Rights

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we remember civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis. He died of pancreatic cancer Friday. He was 80. We're going to listen back to my 2009 interview with him. Lewis grew up in Alabama, the son of sharecroppers. He was often called the conscience of Congress. He was elected in 1986 and served until his death, representing Georgia's 5th District, which includes Atlanta.

As a young civil rights activist, he was repeatedly beaten by police and white racists and was thrown in jail many times. In 1961, he was one of the original Freedom Riders, integrated teams who challenged segregation by traveling together on buses through the segregated South. He was the founder of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and went on to become a close associate of Martin Luther King. Lewis was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, which ended with King's "I Have A Dream" speech.

In 1965, Lewis was a leader of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., protesting segregation and demanding voting rights. The march ended soon after it started, when Alabama state troopers attacked the demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in what became known as Bloody Sunday. Lewis was beaten and suffered a cracked skull. The national outrage that followed that tragic spectacle led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law by Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1965.

Before we hear from John Lewis, we're going to hear some of Bloody Sunday's backstory and listen to an excerpt of my interview with the late J.L. Chestnut, who became the first Black lawyer in Selma, Ala., in 1958. At the time of the march, he was working with the NAACP. He described what Selma was like then for Black people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JL CHESTNUT: Let me give you some flavor of what was going on there. There were only 150 Blacks registered to vote out of a pool of about 15,000. Not one Black - not one in the entire state of Alabama - had ever served on a jury. No Blacks had jobs downtown except as delivery people or janitors, and a Black person could literally lose his or her life for not yielding a sidewalk or saying sir or ma'am to a white person. Fear was everywhere. It engulfed Selma, and it engulfed the South. Now, that is the Selma, the South that I went back to to practice law.

GROSS: You make an interesting point in your book. You say that - we know when you started as a lawyer, there was no Voting Rights Act; there was no Civil Rights Act - so a lot of injustices couldn't be taken to court.

CHESTNUT: What we hoped to do was to make new law. We didn't expect to win at that level. The NAACP, at that point, were financing a lot of criminal cases which were pregnant with the possibility of establishing some of the laws we have on the books now - the Miranda thing, where the police have to read to you your rights and all of that. And the South was fertile territory for that because just being Black in the South made one vulnerable to the police and all of their excesses. And many of them were untrained and, in their relationships with Blacks, unrestrained.

So we were trying to get cases to the United States Supreme Court that would deal with the - whether a confession was voluntary. Eventually, we did and changed the law on that subject. A lot of things which are now the law came about through some of our efforts. And the court, just with the passage of time, got where we were trying to push them way back in the - you know, 1958, 1960.

GROSS: What was your reaction as a, quote, "local" when Martin Luther King came to organize in Selma in 1965?

CHESTNUT: Well, I had been somewhat ambivalent about all of the civil rights leaders there. I felt that what they were saying was directed more at the masses than at me. And after all, I had two degrees, too, and I was educated. And Martin had views which ran counter to everything I had learned in law school. For an example, he insisted that he had a high moral right to disobey an unjust law and he would make the determination when the law was unjust. That is not what I learned in law school. That wasn’t what I believed in. I felt that you go to court to get a law declared unconstitutional. I wasn't quite sure about all this unjust businesses. That was not - that's not the terminology that lawyers use.

In addition to that, Martin was always trying to get me to give up my weapon and calling me a man of little faith. And I was telling him that you go ahead and preach to the masses, but I'm not paying you any attention. I'm going to keep my weapon because it can bark here and bite way down the street. And Martin would laugh.

But I knew that his presence in Selma meant that more people like my mother, middle-class Blacks, would become involved - that Martin's presence gave a legitimacy to the movement that it otherwise would not have. Also, as long as he was involved, important and powerful white people in Washington would be watching. So he meant everything to the movement.

GROSS: Did you ever get more comfortable with civil disobedience as a tactic for civil rights?

CHESTNUT: I was finally convinced that Martin was correct and the people who were paying me were incorrect. It is not generally known, but you take Bloody Sunday - that started out of a situation where a young man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was shot dead by a state trooper. People were so frustrated and all that, they came out with the grotesque idea of just taking Jimmie's body and marching 50 miles to Montgomery and putting the body on George Wallace's desk.

And of course, that was not done, but it was agreed to make the march to Montgomery. And Martin was not involved in that first march, but he came on, I think, the day following and then marched. But what is not generally known is, while they were putting the people in the streets, they were not paying for that. The NAACP Legal Defense fund in New York was financing that. And they were a legalistic organization. That's who I worked for. Their view was that you take two or three obviously qualified people, send them down to get registered. And when they are turned down, you go into court. You've got a perfect case.

Martin was repudiating all that by sending 500 people down because he said he wanted to win in the court of public opinion. He was not interested just in adding a few more voters to the voters' - voting rolls in Selma. So I eventually came around to the point of view that he was correct and my bosses were not.

GROSS: Well, Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, happened during a march from Selma to Montgomery to petition George Wallace for the right to vote. The march was broken up violently by state troopers. Would you share some of your memories of that day?

CHESTNUT: Well, I had come over from Mississippi, and I wasn't sure that there would be a march. Martin was in Atlanta preaching at his father's church, and some people in Martin's organization did not think well of a march. They didn't think it was worth risking Martin. But I think Andy Young called him in Atlanta and persuaded him that there would be a march with or without him. And he - so Martin then OK'd the march.

I had gone across the river early - across the bridge because they would not let lawyers march. You know, you had enough foot soldiers. What we didn't have was enough lawyers. It didn't make sense to have lawyers in jail. So I had gone across the river earlier not knowing whether there would be a march and to get to a telephone because once a march started, you would have the FBI, the press and everybody fighting over the one telephone. So I went over there early to tie it up in case there would be a march. And I'd have to describe to the NAACP what was happening because they were paying the bill.

And I was over there tying up the telephone. And I looked up toward the bridge, and there was John Lewis, who's now Congressman John Lewis from Georgia - Atlanta - and this group of marchers coming toward this great line of state troopers and posse men. And I began to describe the scene over the telephone to New York. And then John and the group came face-to-face with the troopers. And I heard some voice, a state trooper, who said, stop; this will be as far as you will be permitted to go. Turn around and go back to your churches.

And then John and the others began to kneel and pray. And then I heard something that sounded like a tear gas canister hit the pavement. And then there was smoke, bedlam, confusion, blood, tears, cries. And there were these big, hefty posse men swinging billy clubs the size of baseball bats and coming down across the heads of women and children. My eyes were hurting, and my head was hurting, and New York was screaming over the telephone, what's going on? What's going on? And I tried to pull some women back out of the street, and it was just awful.

It was one of the lowest days of my life. At that day, I lost all faith in America. I lost all faith in white people. I said, my God, Black people will never be citizens. We will never be what we ought to be in this land. And what is this? I have gone to Howard University. I'm a lawyer and an officer in the white man's court, and here these people are trampling on my folk in the streets, blood everywhere. And they're trampling on the Constitution, and nobody does anything about it because these people are Black. And I was just almost in tears.

And two days later, I had to revise and make a new assessment because white people and Black people came from all over this nation. They'd watched it on television, and they were thoroughly upset at what they saw. You know, it's easy to send a check down from New York and say I'm with you. It's something altogether different to come down and lock hands with a Black person and say, I'm ready to go to jail; I'm ready to die if necessary. And I saw hundreds and hundreds of people come from all over this land to join with us in this little town of my birth. And I had to look and reassess all over again. And my faith in this nation, my faith in the human race was restored.

GROSS: When the Voting Rights Act was actually passed, what were the immediate effects in Selma?

CHESTNUT: The immediate effect was that within six weeks - in a six-week span, we went from about 200 registered voters to 9,000. I don't know whether there has been on leap of such proportions in the history of the human race. People who could not vote, had no voice in their government, in a matter of six weeks became very important players.

But we saw immediate impact of that in the courtroom. Blacks began to show up on juries. White politicians had to temper what they said about Blacks, and some Blacks began to feel that they could run for office. Where there had been hopelessness, we now had hope.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

CHESTNUT: Well, I'm glad to be here.

GROSS: That was the late J.L. Chestnut, recorded in 1990. He died in 2008 at the age of 77. We'll hear my interview with John Lewis, in which he described his experience on Bloody Sunday, after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARY LOU WILLIAMS' "WILLIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.