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A March to remember
Lewis Richardson’s thoughts always return to his hometown of Selma, Ala., this time of year.
That life is far removed from Baker City, where he’s lived for the past 24 years and works the graveyard shift at Elkhorn Adolescent Treatment Center,
But 47 years ago today, Richardson, then a R.B. Hudson High School senior, was among the 600 marchers who were beaten and tear-gassed as they prepared to walk from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery in a nonviolent protest against efforts to thwart blacks from registering to vote.
“We were trying to make a statement that we should have the right to vote,” says the 64-year-old Richardson as he recalls the violence that marked the Civil Rights movement on what is known as “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965.
Gov. George Wallace telephonically granted the marchers permission to conduct the 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Richardson said. But as they prepared to cross the Edmond Pettus Bridge just six blocks from the Brown Chapel Church where they’d started, they saw cattle cars open as policemen on horseback and others on foot attacked the marchers with ax handles, billy clubs and tear gas,
They were told their march was illegal because they had not applied for a permit, Richardson said.
“It was a setup,” he said. “They organized everything.”
And while the police were “popping tear gas” and clubbing the protesters, the marchers responded nonviolently as they had been taught in meetings with Civil Rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., Richardson said.
Richardson met King and other Civil Rights leaders at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Selma where King spoke once a month with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to organize voter registration drives.
On Bloody Sunday, Richardson remembers how police loaded the marchers onto school buses and took them to a complex of fenced-in tennis courts. They were released one by one as police officers handed them citations charging them with disturbing the peace and unlawful assembly.
Richardson said he and his classmates, who were preparing to graduate that spring, had their diplomas withheld by order of the governor. They had to appear before a federal judge in Montgomery to plead their cases before they received their diplomas.
“We were considered radicals like the Black Panthers and Angela Davis — even though nobody fought back,” he said.
“Our cause was to be equal as citizens,” he said. “We wanted our right to vote for our candidates.”
And while all citizens had the right to vote, blacks weren’t able to exercise that right because many were not registered and were systematically blocked from registering by white residents and government officials, Richardson said.
That’s where he and his classmates came in. They canvassed the neighborhoods helping register people, many of whom were older and illiterate.
Richardson shares his story with his children and with the young people he works with at Elkhorn Adolescent Treatment Center, where he is a lead facilitator and counselor-in-training.
He and his wife, Cindy, have four children. Richard Baird is a senior at Baker High School; Savanna Baird is a sixth-grader; Samantha Baird is 7; and their youngest, Maya Richardson, is 4.
Richardson wants the youngsters to appreciate the efforts that he and other foot soldiers of the Civil Rights movement put forth to secure equal rights.
“It gave me a sense of pride listening to Martin Luther King one Sunday every month,” he said.
Richardson also met celebrities such as Maya Angelou, Harry Belafonte and Cicely Tyson, who were part of the movement.
“They were all positive influences,” he said.
The Bloody Sunday march was the first of three that took place in March 1965. King led a second march on March 9 and turned it around at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The third march started on March 21 and traveled all the way to Montgomery with protection provided by federal officers.
The National Parks Service has established the route as the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights Trail.
“Bloody Sunday became a landmark in American history and the foundation for a successful campaign culminating with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” according to the Park Service website at nps.gov. “Within months of its passage on Aug. 6, 1965, one quarter of a million new black voters had been registered … Within four years, voter registration in the South had more than doubled.”
Those efforts also are memorialized in at the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute at Selma, which sponsors the Annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee on the first full week of March and is under way this week in Selma. Richardson and other members of the R.B. Hudson High School Class of ’65 are among those honored in a display at the museum.
“I want to make people aware of the hardships before — and in some parts of the country the fight’s still continuing,” he said. “It’s embedded down South.”
Richardson returns to Selma about once every three years to catch up with family and friends. He attended the memorial celebrations during the 10th anniversary of the march.
He’s following this year’s events through the Internet and in conversations with his sister, who still lives at Selma.
In addition to being a Civil Rights foot soldier, Richardson also is a decorated U.S. Army veteran. He served three tours of Vietnam during his 25-year career before retiring in 1988.
He celebrated the victory of President Barack Obama four years ago when Obama was elected as the country’s first black president.
And Richardson has high hopes that Obama will be re-elected this fall.
“The best thing in his favor is he’s finally getting the troops back,” Richardson said.
But whoever wins the election, Richardson said he’ll continue to be the good soldier he was trained to be — first as a Civil Rights activist and then as a military man.
“Once a soldier, always a soldier,” he says. “I’m gonna have to back up my commander in chief.”