Ala. police chief apologizes for '61 Freedom Riders attack

U.S. Rep. John Lewis was brought to tears by the apology for the lack of action during the 1961 attack


MONTGOMERY, Ala. — U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement, was moved to tears by an apology from the Montgomery, Ala., police chief for an incident in 1961.

Lewis, D-Ga., was among the Freedom Riders who arrived in Montgomery for a march in 1961. Their bus was greeted by a white mob that beat the black protesters. Police opted to stand down and effectively let the riot happen.

The apology took place during a weekend of events dubbed a congressional pilgrimage to the civil rights fight.

Montgomery Police Chief Kevin Murphy said the apology was long overdue and "the right thing to do." He gave Lewis the badge off his uniform.

Lewis said he was involved in numerous confrontations that met with police indifference in other cities such as Nashville and Birmingham, "but the chief of police in Montgomery is the first to apologize," he said.

"It meant a great deal," Lewis told the Montgomery Advertiser.

The group of lawmakers and civil rights icons then traveled to the city's civil rights memorial, where Lewis, joined by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and 40 other members of Congress, laid a wreath, sang hymns including "We Shall Overcome" and prayed, WAKA-TV, Birmingham, reported.

"People feel very, very deeply about the ceremony. The beauty of the memorial, I think puts people into a contemplative mood and in any event, we're just honored always to have them here. It's a humbling experience," said Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which sponsored the memorial.

In Selma, lawmakers and civil rights leaders spoke out on the Supreme Court's hearing of a challenge to the landmark Voting Rights Act. The law forced southern states to report to the federal government any changes in election law, effectively ending the Jim Crow period where blacks were discouraged or banned outright from voting.

Justices are considering whether the legislation is still necessary. Civil rights icon the Rev. Jesse Jackson said it is still needed, said.

"What we won by legislation and litigation, you would lose by judicial scheme," Jackson said. You would have more gerrymandering. You would lose elections by the pen — more annexation, less notice of elections."

Copyright 2013 U.P.I.

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