Montgomery, Alabama, Police Chief Apologizes to John Lewis for 1961 Beating, Gives Lewis His Badge
In an extraordinary act to atonement, Kevin Murphy, police chief in Montgomery, Alabama, apologized to civil rights leader John Lewis, and gave him his badge, for the beating Lewis received on May 20, 1961 as part of the Freedom Ride.
The Freedom Ride, which began on May 4, 1961, was a challenge to racial discrimination in interstate travel in the south. Two interracial groups of Freedom Riders on Greyhound and Trailways buses attempted to travel from Washington, DC to New Orleans. Following violent attacks on the Freedom Riders in both Birmingham (May 14, 1961) and Anniston (May 14, 1961), Alabama, the leaders of the Freedom Ride abandoned their original plan, cancelled the remaining bus rides, and flew to New Orleans to meet their original plan celebrate the Supreme Court decision of May 17, 1954.
Veterans of the sit-in movement, however, refused to yield to violence and organized a continuation of the Freedom Ride. Diane Nash (June 16, 1961) and other veterans of the Nashville sit-in movement organized the continuation. The bus on which John Lewis rode, reached Montgomery, Alabama, the night of May 19th, and the next day, May 20th, he and others were attacked and beaten, with the police providing no protection.
At a meeting on this day at First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Chief Murphy told Lewis, “When you got off the bus in 1961, you didn’t have a friend in the police department,” Murphy said. “I want you to know that you have friends in the Montgomery Police Department—that we’re for you, we’re with you, we want to respect the law and adhere to the law, which is what you were trying to do all along. This symbol of authority, which used to be a symbol of oppression, needs to be a symbol of reconciliation.”
It was the first apology Lewis had received for the 1961 beating.
Lewis was a leader of the protests in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, and was savagely beaten by local police and state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965. The beatings outraged public opinion all across the U.S. and around the world, and led directly to the enactment of the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act, which President Johnson signed into law on August 6, 1965.
Lewis was elected to Congress as a Representative from Georgia in 1987, and is today one of the most senior and respected members of the House of Representatives.
Read Lewis’ Autobiography: John Lewis (with Michael D’Orso), Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (1998)
Visit Rep. Lewis’ Congressional Home Page: http://johnlewis.house.gov/
Watch newsreel footage of “Bloody Sunday”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gM-tfj6lp6w