BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Dozens of members of Congress are making a weekend-long civil rights pilgrimage through Alabama, visiting historic spots and memorials to the struggle for racial equality.
The mostly Democratic group made its first stop Friday at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, where four black girls died in a Ku Klux Klan bombing in 1963. They then toured a Montgomery memorial to thousands of lynching victims and a museum that traces the journey from enslavement through the fight for civil rights to issues of today.
Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who was once beaten by Alabama troopers while trying to march for voting rights, walked slowly through the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. He paused to read the names of victims and the location and year of the lynching. He noted that some were from the same year he was born: 1940. Lewis described the memorial and museum as “deeply” moving.
The group is also scheduled to visit Selma, where Lewis was beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965.
“It means that people get a better understanding of what we were trying to do during the early days of the civil rights movement, whether it was in Selma or Montgomery or Birmingham,” Lewis said.
At 16th Street Baptist Church, delegation members applauded a handful of civil rights veterans as they stood in the sanctuary and then watched a play depicting the lives of the bombing victims. Lewis posed for a photo with the young cast members.
Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted two of the three KKK members convicted in the church bombing years later, discussed those cases — and the changes in Alabama since — after the performance.
“You can never close those chapters. We have to understand and learn in today’s world,” Jones said. The internet has contributed to a new rise in hate groups, he said.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, making his 15th trip with the group, used the stop in Birmingham to say Democrats next week would bring to the floor a bill to guarantee voting rights and make other changes long favoured by Democrats.
“Voting is at the heart of our Democracy,” said Hoyer.
GOP Rep. Bradley Byrne, who is challenging Jones next year, called voting rights a bipartisan issue and said a larger share of Republicans than Democrats supported key civil rights legislation in the 1960s.
The annual civil rights trip is sponsored by the Faith and Politics Institute.
Associated Press writer Kim Chandler contributed from Montgomery.