Fifty-two years after Rep. John Lewis and fellow civil rights activists were beaten by a mob at a Greyhound station in Montgomery, Ala., Lewis finally received an apology.
Current Montgomery police chief Kevin Murphy offered Lewis an apology on Saturday at First Baptist Church for failing to protect the Freedom Riders in 1961—the first apology that Lewis has received, he said.
In an exclusive video obtained by The Rachel Maddow Show on Monday from the ceremony at First Baptist Church, Murphy is seen removing his badge from his coat and offering it to Lewis as a gesture of reconciliation.
“When you got off the bus in 1961, you didn’t have a friend in the police department,” Murphy said. “I want you to know that you have friends in the Montgomery Police Department—that we’re for you, we’re with you, we want to respect the law and adhere to the law, which is what you were trying to do all along. This symbol of authority, which used to be a symbol of oppression, needs to be a symbol of reconciliation.”
Murphy added that Lewis and the Freedom Riders changed the world, that their actions made a difference to the city of Montgomery and to the country as a whole.
Lewis accepted the badge and has kept it in his pocket since. ”It was very, very moving,” Lewis told Martin Bashir on msnbc Monday afternoon. “I said, ‘I’m not worthy to accept your badge. Do you have another one [to wear]?’”
Lewis described the moment on Saturday as powerfully symbolic. “I’ve been arrested and jailed many times, especially during the ’60s—about 40 times—and never has a police officer offered to apologize. And when I started crying, I was crying tears of gratitude, and I guess that we had come to this point: even when I think about it today, for a young police officer—a young, white police officer; the chief in Montgomery, Alabama, who had not even been born 52 years ago when this all took place—to give me his badge, and he took it off of his lapel…I’ve been keeping it in my pocket all day.”
Murphy spoke with Rachel Maddow Monday night and said that the decision to give his badge to Lewis and to apologize was an easy one. “A badge is an officer’s symbol of trust,” Murphy said. “He said he didn’t think he was worthy to receive it, and I said he was more worthy than any man that I’ve ever met. That what he stood for has changed our city for the better, and I’m most indebted to him. The citizens of Montgomery are indebted to him for his acts of bravery and courage.”
Murphy also spoke about the class he started at the Montgomery Police Department for officers to learn about the department’s place in the civil rights movement and its history with race relations during the movement and in the decades that followed.
“It’s a critical analysis of the Montgomery Police Department’s role during the civil rights movement, and it’s unflattering at times, some of the things that the police department did or didn’t do,” he said. “It’s the police department’s job to preserve life and property. They failed to do that that day [in 1961].”
He added that the class was aimed at younger officers, especially, to explain why there are still walls between the police department and the community.
“I think Montgomery, Alabama, and the United States needs to heal,” Murphy said. “Segregation was a horrendous institution that scarred this country for many years. It scarred Montgomery. But it’s a new day, and people are working together more now than they ever have in the history of our country, than in the history of our state, and certainly in the history of our city, and we need to continue to move forward.”