U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights leader who was beaten as he and others marched in 1965 from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., had already seen the film

Selma

three times.

But he was invited to watch it again Friday - with President Obama at the White House.

"I tell you, I cried some more," said Lewis, 74, who was teargassed and clubbed on the head by Alabama state troopers during the historic march that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act. His head bears the scars.

"I saw death. I thought I was going to die," Lewis told a captive audience in the packed Crowne Plaza Hotel ballroom in Cherry Hill on Saturday.

That fateful day - March 7, 1965 - would later be known as "Bloody Sunday," when Lewis and others led 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma during the now-famous voter-registration march.

'Every generation'

Nearly 50 years later, "the struggle is not over," Lewis said. "Ferguson told us that. New York told us that," he said, with unarmed black men dying in police-related deaths.

Lewis spoke at a presentation honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sponsored by the Kappa Upsilon Sigma chapter of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. A fraternity member himself, Lewis was honored with its life service award. He was invited last year, but his wife, Lillian, 74, died that week.

Earlier Saturday, Lewis sat with about five dozen fraternity youth members.

"Each and every generation must play a role in ending racism," the longtime Democratic Georgia congressman told the youths, ages 12 to 18.

In 1963, Lewis helped organize the historic March on Washington. He was 23 at the time.

'Those signs'

On Saturday, he took the youngsters gathered in the hotel lobby on a history tour of a segregated South, when black children couldn't attend school with white students and had to drink from separate water fountains.

"We were beaten," he said.

He described being spit upon and having hot coffee poured on him in restaurants.

"I saw those signs," he said. " 'White Men,' 'Colored Men,' 'White Women,' 'Colored Women.' "

Lewis, who said the events in Missouri and New York hurt him deeply, urged his audience to "recognize the power of nonviolence. Recognize the power of peace."

The son of a sharecropper, he grew up on a farm in Troy, Ala., about 50 miles from Montgomery.

As a young man, he was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which had organized the voter-registration efforts.

Among those who raised a hand Saturday to ask Lewis a question was Cameron Crawford, 8, of Ewing, N.J.

"Were you happy when they changed the laws?"

"Yes. Very much so," Lewis replied. He later shook the awestruck youngster's hand.

"He's a very special man," Crawford said. "I've read about him at school. He's like Martin Luther King Jr."

Dante Foggy, 17, said Lewis, a licensed minister, inspired him to enter the ministry.

"I met him when I was 13 at our national conference in Atlanta," said Foggy, who is South Jersey president of the local chapter of Sigma Beta Club, whose members are mentored by the national fraternity. "He's awesome."

In an earlier interview, Lewis - who often visits schools in Georgia and Washington and while traveling, spoke of passing the civil rights baton to the next generation.

"They are the people who are going to shape and mold this little planet of ours, and maybe just help save it," he said.

"We made a lot of progress, but we still have so far to go," he said. "Ferguson and New York troubled me a great deal.

"I guess I had a sense of righteous indignation," Lewis said. "When you see what happened, how it happened, you sort of say, 'Where is our system of justice?' "

He recalled how he spoke at the 1963 March on Washington and asked then, "Which side is the government on?"

"That question must still be raised," he said. "Which side? There are so many people of color that continue to suffer. The system of justice must be fair. The scales must be balanced."

With lawyers for the U.S. Justice Department increasingly prosecuting police cases that result in death on the grounds that the victims' civil rights were violated, Lewis said he favored that legal approach for Ferguson, Mo., and New York.

"That approach is necessary," he said. "I think the U.S. attorney general and others within the Department of Justice must pursue that path and give the larger American community the sense that they will seek justice.

"Ferguson and New York had a similar impact that the sit-ins and freedom ride of Selma had," he said.

"Sometimes it's important for people to be able to express themselves in a peaceful, orderly, nonviolent way.

"Racism is still deeply embedded in every corner of American society," he said. "I believe one day we will get there.

"I'm still hopeful and optimistic we will get there."

sparmley@phillynews.com 856-779-3928 @SuzParmley