Little did I expect when we met such violent resistance on the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago that I would someday return to Selma, Alabama, to introduce the President of the United States.

President Barack Obama joined the nation this month in commemorating the anniversary of the sacrifice and service of ordinary people who dared challenge the status quo, and demand the right to vote in cities and towns across the South.

We were unaware of the danger that lay ahead on the other side of that bridge when we struck out the morning of March 7, 1965, which has come to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” We didn’t expect our efforts to lead us into the halls of history. I was just an idealistic young man from Troy, Alabama, who believed he could make a difference. The violent turn of events that day not only changed our lives, but altered the course of our country’s future. 

With cameras rolling and the world watching, Selma sheriff deputies and Alabama state troopers launched a brutal attack using nightsticks and tear gas to push back the unsuspecting crowd, sending us fleeing for our lives back across the bridge to safety. I was struck repeatedly over the head with a baton, and landed in the hospital with a concussion. 

In looking back, it’s clear I could have lost my life on that bridge.

Our triumph came two weeks later when we returned for the second march, this time joined by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands for a three-day trek from Selma to Montgomery, under the protection of the Alabama National Guard. Months later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with Dr. King and me and other civil rights leaders standing at his side.

Coke bottle
Commemorative Coke bottle

Since being elected to the U.S. Congress in 1986, I have led a delegation of politicians back to Selma each year to re-enact our perilous journey across the Edmund Pettus Bridge all those years ago. The raw, powerful emotion of that day never fails to move my guests to honor what was sacrificed by the few for the good of so many.

Much of the world was galvanized by the valiant efforts of Dr. King and the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement to right the wrongs of segregation. We could not have made so much progress without a village of supporters standing with us for justice.

Here in Atlanta, we knew we could always count on our friends at The Coca-Cola Company for support. Coke’s corporate responsibility and civic engagement is legendary, and Georgia residents have no doubt heard about the company’s historic role in the Civil Rights Movement. The hometown heroes have always stood for diversity and inclusion.

Coke took the lead in bringing the Atlanta business community together to honor Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize award. They have been a loyal friend to the Georgia Congressional Delegation with annual support of the Congressional Black Caucus Legislative events and, this year, the company remembered the 50th anniversary of the Selma March with a commemorative Coca-Cola bottle. Our relationship of more than 30 years has endured the test of time, even as I grew into my role as U.S. Congressman for the 5th Congressional District, home to the company’s worldwide headquarters. 

Reflecting back on the historic nature of the march on Selma, I’m reminded that everyone has something constructive to contribute to mankind, even this boy from rural Alabama. No matter what anyone else believes, I encourage you to remain hopeful and optimistic about your ambitions. Do your best. Be strong. Be faithful.  And never, ever give up.