Discuss as:

Alabama police chief apologizes to Freedom Rider congressman

Decades after "Bloody Sunday," national leaders acknowledged America's continuing civil rights struggle by making the iconic march from Selma, Ala. to Montgomery. NBC's Lester Holt reports.


An Alabama police chief brought Rep. John Lewis to tears Saturday, apologizing to the noted civil rights leader for failing to protect the Freedom Riders during a trip to Montgomery in 1961.

Lewis and fellow civil rights activists were beaten by a mob after arriving at Montgomery's Greyhound station in May 1961.

On Saturday at ceremony at First Baptist Church, the city's current police chief, Kevin Murphy, apologized to Lewis and offered him his badge in a gesture of reconciliation, telling the longtime Georgia congressman that Montgomery police had "enforced unjust laws" in failing to protect the Freedom Riders more than five decades ago.

Lewis, who was arrested during civil rights protests in cities across the south, said it was the first time a police chief had apologized to him.

"It means a great deal," Lewis said. "I teared up. I tried to keep from crying."

Lewis and other members of Congress were taking part in the 13th Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Alabama, a three-day event that also included trips to Selma, Tuscaloosa and Birmingham.

Murphy said the decision to apologize was easy.

"For me, freedom and the right to live in peace is a cornerstone of our society and that was something that Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Congressman Lewis were trying to achieve" Murphy said. "I think what I did today should have been done a longtime ago. It needed to be done. It needed to be spoken because we have to live with the truth and it is the truth."

Murphy, who was asked to speak at the event only after Montgomery's mayor and director of public safety were unable to attend, said he wanted the Montgomery Police Department to be "heard in a different light than what history has recorded in years past."

"We're going to move forward as one Montgomery, one MPD. And we're going to continue to work at it," Murphy said. "There's still a lot of work to do, we know that. We, the police department, needs to make the first move to build that trust back in our community that was once lost because we enforced unjust laws.

"Those unjust laws were immoral and wrong. But you know what? It's a new day. And there's a new police department and a new Montgomery here and now and on the horizon."

Montgomery Police Chief Kevin Murphy and Rep. John Lewis speak to the press after Murphy offered an apology to Lewis for the failure of Montgomery police officers to respond to attacks on the Freedom Riders during a trip to Montgomery in May 1961.