House Historian to Preserve Civil Rights History of Lawmakers

Posted March 1, 2012 at 10:12am

Testimonies of Congressional lawmakers who participated in the civil rights movement will be preserved under a resolution passed today.

The House unanimously passed, 418-0, a measure instructing the Office of the House Historian to compile the stories of current and former Members who were involved in civil rights events and activities of the 1960s.

The resolution will also call for documentation of the experiences of Members who participated in the protest marches in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

The most well-known lawmaker to play a role in those marches is Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). He was a leader of the March 7, 1965, march between the two cities that has become known as “Bloody Sunday” for the serious violence that state and local law enforcement inflicted on the peaceful demonstrators. The graphic photographs from that event, including one where Lewis is being clubbed over the head by a police officer, led to passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.

Since 1998, Lewis has led a Congressional delegation back to Selma and other landmarks of the civil rights movement each year.

The 2012 pilgrimage begins Friday.

“Many members who have gone on the pilgrimage were not even born during the civil rights movement,” Lewis said, adding that those lawmakers who had participated in the yearly trip “have come away changed by this experience forever.”

House floor debate on the resolution was characterized by moving tributes to Lewis.

“Let us not even begin to underestimate [his] significant contribution,” Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) said.

“Unsurpassed in courage in our midst is our colleague, the conscience of the Congress, Congressman John Lewis,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said. “There aren’t many people like John Lewis.”

Pelosi also named other current lawmakers who made notable contributions to the civil rights movement.

Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.), Pelosi said, was arrested several times for civil disobedience; Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) both volunteered during Freedom Summer. She said Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) spent “several months in jail” for his work with the Freedom Riders, a group of civil rights activists seeking to integrate bus travel in the segregated South. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) was an organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Pelosi added that Rep. Terri Sewell’s (D-Ala.) family opened its home to travelers during the formative 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery.

Sewell, who introduced the resolution along with Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.) ­— the two women represent parts of Birmingham and Montgomery, respectively — also praised Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the longest-serving Member of the House, elected in 1955, who was in office to vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“My election last year would not have been possible had it not been for the courage of Members of Congress, present and former,” said Sewell, a freshman lawmaker and the first black woman ever elected to represent Alabama in Congress.

In an interview with Roll Call on Wednesday, Sewell said she looked forward to drawing from the oral histories that the House historian will collect as a result of this resolution as she prepares for the upcoming 50th anniversary activities of the 1965 marches.

The resolution originated in the office of Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who wanted to find a way to pay his respects to Lewis and honor the history of the civil rights movement that reached a fever pitch in the month of March, 47 years ago.

Also consulting with Democratic leadership, Cantor worked with Lewis on developing the language of the resolution, and he worked with Sewell and Roby to bring the measure to the floor, in their capacity as Members representing the region in which the historic events took place.

“Act[s] of leadership, courage and bravery culminated in Congress passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Cantor said this morning. “At that time, there were just six black Members of Congress; now I am proud to serve with 44 black colleagues.

“Their stories are an important part of our nation’s heritage and will serve as a reminder of the determination and sacrifice,” he said.