ST. BONAVENTURE, NY — Vice President for University Advancement Robert Van Wicklin walked many a time across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with Rep. John Lewis, commemorating the violent March 7, 1965, Civil Rights incident in Selma, Alabama, that has become known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Van Wicklin, whose friendship with Lewis began when he worked for Lewis’ congressional colleague, Amo Houghton, recalled, “The most incredible experience for me was the first time we walked across the bridge, probably 20 years ago. When we came up to the highest point and could see over to the other side, there were hundreds of law enforcement personnel gathered on the street below. I remembered the scenes of John’s original attempt to cross the bridge in 1965, where the police attacked the marchers with tear gas, batons and other weapons.”
He continued, “It gave me an extremely uneasy and anxious feeling, to see that same view. But this time, after a stop at the apex of the bridge for prayer and a few words, John led us down the slope of the bridge. This time, instead of being met with billy clubs and tear gas, he was greeted and hugged by the Alabama state troopers and other police officers who were there to protect him.”
Van Wicklin said his travels to Selma with Lewis were under the auspices of the not-for-profit organization, the Faith & Politics Institute in Washington, which Lewis and Houghton eventually co-chaired and which Van Wicklin serves as a board member.
“John and my former boss were close friends — unlikely friends,” Van Wicklin explained. “John was an Alabama sharecropper’s son, who rose to be a Civil Rights icon and a Democrat in Congress, and Amo, who was born to one of the wealthiest families in the country, Harvard-educated and a former Fortune 500 CEO and a Republican from New York. But some people are just automatically drawn to each other, and Amo and John fell into that category as they were both first elected in 1986 and met during the congressional orientation.”
Van Wicklin said that the two congressmen built the institute from a small organization to one of national prominence, and its annual walk across the Pettus Bridge has attracted persons across the political spectrum, from Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to Mike Pence and George W. Bush.
In 2017, Van Wicklin invited JW Cook, a senior political science major at St. Bonaventure, and Parker A. Suddeth, who was the university's coordinator for the Damietta Center for Multicultural Student Affairs, to attend the commemorative march with him.
Recollections of marching elbow-to-elbow with Lewis as the group reenacted the 1965 march has given Cook plenty to reflect on in the days following the congressman’s death.
“He spoke to us about what it was like marching two by two up that bridge while we walked,” Cook said. “His getting to the top of the bridge, looking down and seeing as he described to us a sea of blue state troopers standing defiantly in their way.”
Cook said he grew up hearing stories of Lewis’ activism. And he described witnessing Lewis in his “complete form” as “one of the greatest experiences of my life.
“It was so inspiring,” Cook said. “This is a man who has dedicated his entire life to public service — and even before he was an elected official,”
Cook, who works as a legislative assistant for Assemblyman Harry Bronson, spoke about the New York State Assembly and Senate passing, on July 17, a package of five bills dedicated to protecting the right to vote.
“Ironically, it is funny that we are talking about John Lewis,” said Cook. “We recently passed these five bills, and I was so proud to be a part of a staff that supports the right to vote and cares about democracy and access to voting in New York State. It was definitely something Congressman Lewis would have supported.
Suddeth said that since Lewis’ passing, he has found the March 2017 experience to be more relative and inspirational than ever.
“We are at a point and place in society that we are realizing that one of his famous quotes about getting into good trouble is necessary is at its utmost relevance,” Suddeth said. “His legacy tells us that it is important to continue pushing the needle and that this is a relentless fight and pursuit to foster a fair and just climate.”
Van Wicklin traveled with Lewis to many places all over the world, including South Africa, where they had tea with Nelson Mandela in his living room.
“In all of our time together, I saw that John was someone who genuinely cared about what others were saying and wanted to hear their stories,” Van Wicklin recalled. "He never really spoke about himself unless he was asked, and if you asked him the right questions you heard amazing stories about his times with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others who were critical to the Civil Rights movement in our country. He was a strong person, yet gentle and kind. He treated everyone with the same high level of respect and humility, whether it was a staffer like me or the president of the United States.
“But he was no push-over,” Van Wicklin continued. "He stood firm in his beliefs, never allowed anyone to push him aside during debates or negotiations. He made sure his presence was known but didn’t trample on anyone else’s right to do the same, whatever their position might be. I learned a lot from him and think about his advice to young people he would meet: 'If you feel you are not being heard or that a situation is unfair, find a way to get in the way.' Great advice for anyone looking to enter politics or any career where you have the opportunity to make things happen."
Van Wicklin marched across the bridge with Lewis in March, "just two weeks before the world shut down because of the coronavirus." He recalled Lewis being " frail and thin" from pancreatic cancer and that they talked a lot about Houghton, who had died on March 4. Lewis managed to walk up the bridge and speak about his experience of 55 years ago.
"The image of him hugging a young boy who had fought his way through the crowd just to be able to meet him will now be forever etched into my mind as the last time I’d be with John Lewis and the last time we would walk across that bridge together," Van Wicklin said.
And he added, "This week, when the horse-drawn carriage carried his casket from the Brown Chapel to through Selma, I watched on television as the caisson stopped at the very top of that bridge, in the same spot that we had always stopped and the same spot where I last stood with him. I had a huge lump in my throat as I knew it was the end of an era that I was so fortunate to be able to experience in a small way."
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