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Top congressmen join in civil rights pilgrimage

Montgomery AdvertiserThe second-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives first experienced segregation when he was 11. U.S. Rep John Lewis right center holds hands with U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer and Kerry Kennedy an human rights activist and daughter of Robert Kennedy as they sing at the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery during a visit by a congressional delegation Saturday. (Mickey Welsh - Advertiser) House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland who was the House majority leader when Democrats controlled the House had moved to Coconut Grove Fla. from New York with his family. In a grocery store he saw two fountains one for whites and one for "colored." Not knowing any better Hoyer started to drink from the "colored" fountain until a clerk stopped him. The clerk had to explain why he was not supposed to drink from that fountain. Hoyer then attended a segregated school in Florida and later passed a school for black students on his way to school. He said de facto segregation remained even after the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation in schools based on race was unconstitutional. As he went on to college to law school and then ran for the state Senate in Maryland shortly after graduating Hoyer said he continued to question racial discrimination and knocked on the doors of black people in the district whom he said voted for him overwhelmingly. Hoyer has since become a regular on three-day congressional civil rights pilgrimages that bring members of Congress the media and religious figures into Alabama. They hear from key figures in the civil rights movement and visit sites in Birmingham Montgomery and Selma leading up to the ceremonial crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge commemorating the anniversary of Bloody Sunday in 1965 when state troopers beat civil rights advocates trying to march from Selma to Montgomery. Other members of Congress who joined Hoyer included John Lewis of Georgia James Clyburn of South Carolina Chris Van Hollen of Maryland Barbara Lee of California John Larson of Connecticut and Terri Sewell of Birmingham. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada arrived in Montgomery later Saturday to participate in activities. Kerry Kennedy the daughter of former U.S. attorney general and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy also joined the group. They are brought to Alabama through the Faith and Politics Institute. Reid said this is his first trip to the civil rights sites but said "I have been trying to come for years." The majority leader said he loves history was in Washington as a policeman during the "big march " and admires Lewis. "I wanted to see where he almost got killed " Reid said. Hoyer said another reason he travels to Alabama is because of his close relationship with Lewis who he considers an extraordinary man. Lewis who is originally from Troy and represents Georgia in the U.S. House was active in the civil rights movement and was among those attacked trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. "I think it's fitting for politicians and individuals working in the political arena to see how people in the movement were grounded in certain values " Lewis told the Montgomery Advertiser. He said faith guides how people treat each other and questioned whether people would "keep cutting and cutting basic human needs" if they followed the popular phrase "What Would Jesus Do." Lewis who recently received the Presidential Medal of Freedom said he has had members of Congress tell him on previous trips that "If I had been on this trip earlier my voting record would be different." Lewis talked to those on the pilgrimage at First Baptist Church on Ripley Street in downtown Montgomery where he said he first met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. more than 50 years ago. Also when he participated in the Freedom Rides they sought refuge in the historic church. Fellow Freedom Rider Bernard Lafayette Jr. who worked to register voters in Selma and civil rights advocate Bob Zellner also spoke to those at the church. They talked about angry mobs and being jailed. Zellner grew up the son and grandson of members of the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham. His father he said was disowned when he left the Klan after being unable to reconcile his religion and his racism. An unlikely civil rights advocate Zellner said he became involved as a student at Huntingdon College in Montgomery. Zellner Lewis and Hoyer all continue to push nonviolence as an avenue for change. Hoyer considers his trips to Alabama a "powerful experience" that reinforces his fight against discrimination and prejudice. Van Hollen was on his third pilgrimage and he has brought along one of his children each time. He has his son Alex 15 with him on this trip to Alabama. "I make the trip to remind myself of the struggle people went through to get the rights we sometimes take for granted today " Van Hollen said. He said it is also an opportunity to echoing the words of Lewis take action be a leader and "get in the way" to confront injustice. The congressman said the trip is a "great lesson for young people" about the power of an individual. Van Hollen called the experience a "living lesson."