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Another Voice: Olmsted parks inspired civil rights hero's dream

By Rep. Brian Higgins

On March 7, 1965, John Lewis led a civil rights march from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, protesting the lack of voting rights for African-Americans. Alabama state troopers awaited them at the foot of the bridge and ordered them to disperse; instead, they knelt to pray.

The troopers attacked the peaceful marchers with tear gas and billy clubs. John Lewis' skull was broken. Before seeking medical help, a bloodied Lewis admonished President Lyndon Johnson on national television to intervene and take up this civil rights cause. This event was known as "Bloody Sunday" and the Voting Rights Act was signed into law later that year.

I've traveled with Mr. Lewis and observed people approaching him appropriately as an authentic American hero. He is a good and humble man who greets them in return with kindness and appreciation.

Lewis was born to sharecroppers and grew up on a chicken farm in Troy, Ala. In the summer of 1951, his mother was determined to get John out of the heat of the segregated South. She sent him to Buffalo to spend time with her family here. His mother baked for three days in preparation for their journey, as stopping at a diner was not really an option for the Lewis family.

When John arrived in Buffalo, he saw for the first time black and white children playing in unison in the Parade, now Martin Luther King Jr. Park, an original Olmsted park. He saw white and black women drinking from the same water fountains, and he saw his uncles working alongside white men in the steel and flour mills of Buffalo.

John stated in his biography that what he experienced in Buffalo convinced him that desegregation of the South was possible.

Before Frederick Law Olmsted was a landscape architect, and long before he designed the Buffalo park system, he was a New York Times journalist covering the pre-Civil War South. He became a leader in the abolitionist movement and co-founded The Nation magazine.

His Buffalo parks system endures as the urban landscape envy of the nation.

Connected by a parkway system, the Buffalo Olmsted parks were an expression of the artist's egalitarian vision of social justice and a democratic society. A natural respite from the congested city, his parks, by design, were welcoming to all — a place where class and racial lines blurred. There were no gates or fences in his parks; and there were no walls.

The Buffalo Olmsted parks remain a valued asset to our region. The park system is a testament to Olmsted's vision for a just and democratic nation. It is also a testament to the vision of John Lewis, who at the age of 11, was inspired by what he saw here in Buffalo and had the presence of mind and courage to act on that inspiration.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, represents the 26th Congressional District.

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