The Selma March 40 Years Later: from the Front Lines of Freedom

updated 03/07/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/07/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

AMELIA BOYNTON ROBINSON, 93, had been a voting rights activist for 30 years when she joined marchers heading out of Selma toward the state capital of Montgomery
When we got to the peak of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, we saw these state troopers lined up across the highway looking like tin soldiers. They didn't even move their heads.

JOHN LEWIS, 65, now a U.S. Representative, was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
[A fellow organizer] said to me, "John, can you swim?" I said, "No, I can't." There was nowhere to go but forward.

J.L. CHESTNUT, 74, was Selma's first black lawyer
They were decked out in riot gear, with tear-gas canisters, gas masks and billy clubs the size of baseball bats. We came face-to-face with the armed might of the state of Alabama. All of a sudden, you hear this white voice say, "Stop, turn around, go back to your church, this is as far as you will be permitted to go. There will be no march."

JOANNE BLAND, 51, director of Selma's National Voting Rights Museum, had been arrested 13 times when she marched at age 11
Suddenly I heard gunshots and screaming. The gunshots turned out to be the tear-gas canisters going off, but we didn't know it at the time. Troopers were swinging their billy clubs every which way, hitting men, women, children, black, white—they didn't care. They were just tearing through the people.

LYNDA LOWERY, 54, Bland's sister
I saw them carrying my sister, putting her in a car. I ran over there to her. I thought she was dead, and I was supposed to be protecting her, being the older sister. They told me she had just fainted. So I was leaning in the car, asking her to wake up. She woke up and looked up and saw me and just started screaming—it was the blood on my face from being beaten.

AMELIA BOYNTON ROBINSON
I just couldn't understand how human beings could be like that. One trooper told me to run. I just gave him a dirty look. He hit me. The second time he said "Run," he hit me at the base of my neck and I fell unconscious.

J.L. CHESTNUT
I actually heard the sound of ribs cracking as the horses ran over these people on the highway.

JOHN LEWIS
I was hit in the head with a billy club. To this day, I don't know how I got off the bridge. I woke up at the church that afternoon.

J.L. CHESTNUT
When it was over, I walked back across the bridge, literally crying, and saying to myself, I don't think America can be saved.

Following the violence that left at least 70 people injured and 17 hospitalized-and inspired protests in 80 cities—Martin Luther King Jr. urged supporters from around the country to converge on Alabama to complete the march from Selma to Montgomery on March 16.

GALWAY KINNELL, 78, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet
At [Pennsylvania's] Juniata College, I was teaching a course in black American literature and one of the students said, "Why don't we go down there?"

HARRIET RICHARDSON MICHEL, 63, was then a senior at Juniata College
We were just kids, stupid and scared, and it was a scary place.

Separated from the main march in a white area of Montgomery, the Juniata students were attacked by state troopers mounted on horses.

GALWAY KINNELL
They stopped us and surrounded us on a street in this deserted quarter and they wouldn't let us go forward or back.

HARRIET RICHARDSON MICHEL They went right for Galway with a billy club. They hit him on the head, and it just popped right open and bled like hell.

PAMELA CLEMSON MACOMBER, 57, was a 17-year-old Juniata freshman
When it came to hitting, they had a priority list. They'd go for the white men first, then the black men, then the black women, then white women. It was their bit of chivalry. I asked one trooper, "What are you going to tell your grandchildren?" He didn't have an answer.

Many of the 1965 demonstrators still live in Selma, and others have returned to the place where they made history.

JOANNE BLAND
Things have changed. The stores along the main street used to be owned by whites. Now it's a rainbow of color. We've got a black mayor. Most of the city council is black. We've made progress. But a lot of it is surface change.

LYNDA LOWERY
I came back; this is home. I ran for city council and lost in a close race. I plan to run again. Selma has changed, but it has not changed enough. We have a lot of people here who were part of changing it, who were part of history, but I don't think their grandchildren know that they were a part of it.

JOHN LEWIS
When we first marched and saw the troopers, every one of them was a white man. Five years ago [when we re-created the march], the group of troopers were men and woman, white, black and Hispanic. And when we reached the bridge, they cheered.

Lori Rozsa and Nancy Wilstach in Selma and Michelle York in New York

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