Following John Lewis on Civil Rights Journey ‘Touched By the Spirit of History’

(CNN) — “Touched by the spirit of history.”

It’s how congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, told 16-year-old Charlotte Potes she should describe her pull toward activism to her skeptical parents.

It was also how every one of us on last weekend’s remarkable civil rights pilgrimage felt: touched by the spirit of history.

The Faith and Politics Institute organizes a bipartisan delegation to take this trip every year around the March 7 anniversary of a 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, by protesters calling for African-Americans to have the right to register to vote.

Lewis, who was beaten by white police so badly that fateful day that they broke his skull, leads the pilgrimage.

“I remember so well the moment that I was beaten and left at the foot of the bridge. I thought I was going to die. I thought I saw death. I thought it was the last march,” Lewis told me, while standing on the bridge where he shed so much blood.

“Fifty-three years later, I don’t know how I made it back across this bridge, but apparently a group of individuals literally took me across the bridge, back to the church where we left from. But I do remember being back at the church and someone asked me to say something to the audience, and I stood up and said something like, ‘I don’t understand it. How President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam and cannot send troops to Selma, Alabama, to protect people who only desires to register to vote?'” Lewis recalled under such a blue sky and peaceful day, it was hard to imagine the violence that took place under our feet.

“This is the place they gave us the Voting Rights Act, made it possible for hundreds and thousands and millions of people to be able to participate in the democratic process.”

A lesson for today’s teenage activists

That kind of activism — marching to demand something different from the government — took on a new meaning this year as the country watches the organic student movement forming in the wake of last month’s school massacre of 17 people — mostly teenagers — in Parkland, Florida.

They want something that seems as basic as the right to vote: the right to be safe at school.

“I see so much hope, so much of our future in this new movement,” Lewis told me, still standing on that bridge in Selma.

“I say to the young people and young leaders, just give it all you got,” Lewis advised today’s student protesters. “Do not get weary. Be hopeful. Be optimistic and take the long hard look. We had some difficulties. They will have some difficulties. They will have some setbacks. But you can’t give up. You cannot give in.”

Current events collided with this walk through history all throughout the remarkable pilgrimage.

Every speaker, from Peggy Wallace Kennedy, daughter of infamous segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace, to Martin Luther King III spoke of the hope they see in the youth of today.

“Many are very, very proud of the young people in Parkland, who are leading, not following, and waiting for something to happen. These are high school students, I have a lot of faith in young people,” King said.

Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, brought a group of students from her home district of Oakland, who are involved with the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Center there. Two teenagers, Potes and David Gaines, blew all of us grown-ups away.

Potes had a powerful question for Lewis: “There are a lot of 13, 14, 15 year olds who want to be involved in the movement and in the work that you do and that we all do. And they want to be warriors for justice but they can’t, because some of our parents are frightened when they speak up and they don’t know what it means.”

A truly bipartisan moment

Members of both parties annually embark on this pilgrimage, and one of the fascinating parts of this experience, as a reporter who covers the daily partisan vitriol in Washington, was to watch it slip away as the plane touched down at our first stop in Memphis, Tennessee, and remain that way at least until we were wheels up from Montgomery, Alabama, three days later.

House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers brought several African-Americans from her home district in Spokane, Washington. She called it part of a journey she is on to better understand them, and vice versa, after an incident of racial graffiti following the 2016 election.

Her district is no more than 2% African-American, but she said she wants to learn, and the trip clearly went a long way towards helping do that.

The climax for her, no doubt, as it was for all of us was locking arms with Democrat John Lewis and walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with him — not as opposing members of Congress, but as students and teachers, retracing steps of epic struggle for equality with a man who led the way all those years ago.

Other Republican congress members, such as Tom Rooney of Florida and Susan Brooks of Indiana, joined in that life changing experience as well, closing the partisan divide by walking along side Democratic colleagues from House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer to first-term Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California.

“It gives me inspiration to remember the struggles that so many have faced and so we are yet in another period where we must struggle for civil rights. For everyone to have an equal voice and be given equal opportunity,” said Harris, the sole female African-American senator in the chamber.

Touched by the spirit of history. They all were. You could see it on their faces.

A series of ‘pinch me’ living history moments

Because April marks 50 years since Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, this year’s civil rights pilgrimage started in Memphis.

The first stop for our group, which included about a dozen bipartisan members of Congress, was the Mason Temple, where King delivered his famous “mountaintop” speech the night before he was killed.

Greeting us as we entered the famous church was a gospel choir so good and so powerful, it was impossible not to immediately get swept up in the moment, and the history of where we were all standing.

It was also the first introduction to what we would be treated to throughout the entire weekend: stories from the people who lived it. The people who shed blood, sweat and tears for equality.

Here, it was Elmore Nickleberry, a Memphis sanitation worker who joined the strike in 1968 to demand the same pay and benefits as white workers. King was in Memphis to support those workers when he was killed.

Then, on the church audio system, the voice of King.

“I have seen the promised land,” we heard him say, as we all sat and looked at the empty pulpit where he actually delivered that speech.

For me, the only thing more powerful than that was later — actually standing on that pulpit. The wave of emotion that I felt standing there is something I did not expect, and will never forget.

Next it was on to the Lorraine Motel, where King was shot to death.

It is now a civil rights museum, but room 306, where King was staying, was left exactly as it was at 6 a.m. April 4, 1968, when he was killed on the balcony outside. The breakfast remnants. His vanity case by the sink. A newspaper splashing headlines about Vietnam on the bed.

Outside, a woman broke into song as lawmakers who came from Washington, displayed the first of many bipartisan shows of unity and respect.

Lewis was pushing back tears when he stood in the motel parking lot and recalled first hearing about King when he was a 15-year-old boy living in rural Alabama, then actually meeting him when he was 18.

“I remember hearing Dr. King’s voice. In 1955 when I was 15 years old. Growing up in rural Alabama. Then in 1958, at the age of 18 I met him. He changed my life. He inspired me to stand up. To speak up. To never give up.”

Remembering violent history in Birmingham

From there it was wheels up to Birmingham, Alabama, known in the 1950s and 60s as “Bombingham” because so many black churches and homes were blown up by the Klu Klux Klan.

The most infamous of those bombings was the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. Four little girls were killed doing nothing more than attending Sunday school.

Again, the Faith and Politics Institute assembled a group that allowed us to learn this painful history from those who lived it.

Then 16-year-old Carolyn McKinstry had been in the church basement minutes before the bomb went off, and had just been talking to the girls who were killed seconds before they died.

It is something that obviously scarred her for life, but now Reverend Doctor McKinstry says she took that trauma and funneled it into a lifetime of work helping people overcome hate.

That evening I interviewed Alabama’s new Democratic senator, Doug Jones. He won with the help of overwhelming turnout from African-Americans, and the story of what he did helps explain why.

When he became US attorney during the Clinton administration, only one of the four suspects of the bombing was ever brought to justice. That was in 1977, 14 years after it happened.

In 1997, 24 years after the 16th street Baptist church bombing, Jones began to prosecute two suspects still living.

In a remarkable twist that you usually only see in the movies, Jones won one conviction because he found an old, forgotten FBI recording of KKK member Thomas Blanton discussing his plans to bomb the church with his then-wife. Blanton was convicted in 2001, Bobby Frank Cherry, in 2002.

All of that, was only on Day 1.

Montgomery: History in the shadow of the Capitol

Day 2 was Montgomery, Alabama’s state Capitol where so many of the clashes, the bloodshed, and the racism spilled onto the streets.

First stop: Dexter Avenue Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. preached as a young man — and where he first got involved in the civil rights movement which quickly made him its leader.

Remarkably, this church — where King and his allies began to plot the Montgomery bus boycott, is only a block from the state Capitol. It literally sits in the shadow of the big white dome.

And just around the corner, one of the most famous moments of American history took place: Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus, as Jim Crow laws required for blacks.

The theme of this day was the children of the civil rights movement. So who came to preach at the Dexter Avenue church? Martin Luther King III.

“I was 10 years old when dad was killed, but while we had a great loss I think the nation gleamed an incredible message and an understanding of a movement that transformed this nation.”

Also there was Kennedy, the daughter of the Alabama governor who was the segregationist antagonist of the civil rights movement.

She has spent most of her adult life trying to right the wrongs of her father. In a stunningly eloquent manner, she tries to explain why Wallace spewed so much hatred, why he stood at the schoolhouse door to stop black children from entering. He was trying to hold onto power and at that time, that meant appealing to and appeasing whites — the only ones really allowed to vote.

“Martin Luther King dedicated his life to justice; my father, until the twilight of his life, dedicated his life to power,” she said. “Dr. King used his power to fulfill a dream for mankind.”

Kennedy said after her father was shot and spent his twilight years pain, he finally understand the pain he caused blacks across Alabama.

“My father came unannounced in his later years, and came into the church, went to the front of the church in his wheelchair, and asked the African American community for their forgiveness for the suffering and pain that he had caused them, during his governing time.”

Final day: Selma 53 years later

Imagine this: Sitting in the front of a bus with John Lewis as you approach the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Watching him sitting silently, and only imagining the flood of memories in his mind. That’s what I got to experience.

Being with Lewis on the bridge, listening to him talk, learning from him, is something every single person on that pilgrimage voraciously tried to eat up. Grab every morsel of his essence, and try so hard not to forgot even a second.

I know I won’t. I am so grateful for this experience, as are my CNN colleagues, Bridget Nolan and Jeremy Moorhead, who traveled with me. Life changing does not even begin to describe it.