What was in John Lewis’s backpack in Selma on Bloody Sunday?

A pivotal moment in the African-American civil rights movement came on March 7, 1965, when roughly 600 marchers were met by state and local lawmen after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The lawmen attacked the marchers with billy clubs and tear gas as television cameras rolled and still images were circulated in print media around the world, earning the event the nickname “Bloody Sunday.”

Lewis, as portrayed by actor Stephan James, marching on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the film "Selma." (screenshot via YouTube)
Lewis, as portrayed by actor Stephan James, marching on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the film “Selma.” (screenshot via YouTube)

One of the leaders of the march that day was 25-year-old John Lewis, now of course the longtime U.S. congressman, LGBT ally and civil rights icon. Last August, we ran an installment of “Catching Up” focusing on Rep. Lewis, so with the Oscar-nominated (but not Oscar-nominated enough, as many think) “Selma” in theaters now and with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day occurring on Jan. 19, we’re publishing a question and answer that we left out of the final interview.

A distinctive image from the incident is of Lewis in a beige trench coat and wearing a backpack. Lewis’s answer gives some insight into the mindset of the marchers that day.

This is random but I’m curious, in the Bloody Sunday incident on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, you appeared to be the only one wearing a backpack. What was in the backpack?

I remember very well. As a matter of fact I went to the Army surplus store and bought this backpack. I really thought we were going to be successful walking all the way from Selma to Montgomery. And somehow, someway I thought maybe we would be arrested and we would go to jail, so while in jail I wanted to have something to read. I had two books in the backpack. I wanted to have something to eat—I had one apple and one orange. One apple and one orange wouldn’t last that long. Being in jail, you know I had been arrested and been to jail before, the sad thing about being in jail for two or three days, you need to brush your teeth. So there was toothpaste and a toothbrush in there.

I don’t know what happened to that backpack, I don’t know what happened to the two books. I don’t know what happened to the trench coat. One of the books was by a professor of political science at Harvard and the other book was by Thomas Merton, the monk. I just wished I had them. The Smithsonian and the Library of Congress are always asking me what happened to them and I tell them I really don’t know.

Lewis would suffer a fractured skull from the Bloody Sunday beating, the scar of which is visible to this day. The incident was one of the three Selma-to-Montgomery marches for voting rights, and the efforts led to passage of the Voting Rights Act.

You can read more on Rep. Lewis in the interview, including his thoughts on the late gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, what the LGBT movement is missing and more. And watch the trailer for “Selma” below, parts of which were filmed in Georgia.

psaunders@thegavoice.com | @patricksaunders