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If you like John Lewis's story, you might also like:
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Ernest J. Gaines,
Daniel Inouye,
Frank M. Johnson,
James Earl Jones,
B.B. King,
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John Lewis can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring John Lewis in the Achievement Curriculum area:
The Road to Civil Rights
Social Advocacy

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John Lewis
John Lewis
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John Lewis Interview (page: 2 / 7)

Champion of Civil Rights

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  John Lewis

What did you like to read as a kid? What books did you like?

John Lewis: Well, I was very moved by stories, the history, knowing what happened, how it happened. As a child I would ask a lot of questions of my mother, my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, my aunts, the grand-aunts, and they accused me of being nosy, but I was inquisitive. I was eavesdropping a great deal as a child. When my mother's aunt, my grand-aunt would come and visit us, I would go in another room and I would listen. I would listen, and the moment they left the house I would say, "What was that all about? What did y'all mean? What did that word mean? What was it all about?" And sometimes my mother and my grand-aunt, and sometimes my grand-uncles, they would walk the road, down a long road to see them off to their home, and I would walk with them, and I would ask questions on the way back and we had these discussions. And when I was growing up, I was somewhat shy but I grew out of it, because I wanted to know. I had to - if you want to know something you have to ask.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

What was hardest for you growing up?

John Lewis: I had a restless spirit. I knew segregation was wrong. I saw it. We were bused long distances over unpaved roads during the spring, and it would rain sometimes, the school bus would break down, get in a ditch, and we would get to school late and return home late. We were bussed past white schools and I didn't like it.

When I was 11 years old in 1951, one summer, one of my uncles, my mother's younger brothers, invited me to go to Buffalo for the summer with some of my first cousins and an aunt. And I remember so well my mother spending two or three evenings cooking pies and cakes, frying chicken, wrapping it in cellophane because we didn't have aluminum foil then, and she would put it in brown paper bags or shoe boxes for us to have some place for something to eat, because there was not any place for us to stop to get something to eat as we drove through Alabama, or through Tennessee, or through Kentucky on our way to Buffalo. And when I got to Buffalo I saw a different world. I saw black and white people living together, working together, going to school together, shopping together, going to the theater together. And so when I came back to Alabama after being there for the summer, I wanted to find a way to get out of Alabama. And I had this sort of crazy idea with some of my first cousins. This wouldn't be environmentally correct, but we were going to saw down a very large pine tree, and somehow we had this idea that we're going to take the large part of the pine tree and make wheels, and we were going to make a wooden bus, and we were going to roll out of Alabama.

Did you have role models? Who inspired you as a child? Did you have heroes?

John Lewis: Well, growing up in all black schools...

During one week in February we had what we called Negro History Week, and we had to make a scrapbook. So we had to go out and find pictures of outstanding African Americans -- then we said Negroes or blacks. And so I would locate a photograph of Frederick Douglas; Booker T. Washington, the educator; George Washington Carver, the scientist; Ralph Bunche, the diplomat; Jackie Robinson, the baseball player; Joe Louis, the boxer. He was a native of Alabama, and Carver and Booker T. Washington had been located only about 45 miles from where I grew up at Tuskegee. So reading about these men sort of inspired me to see that people of color made a contribution. But I think my mother had a tremendous impact because she knew we needed to get an education, and she would say, "Study, get an education," but at the same time she was torn. She knew we had to work to help around the house and help gather the crops. And my father and my mother did their best, and when I look back on those early years, I don't know how they made it. I don't know how we survived.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

John Lewis: When I was growing up I wanted to be a minister. I wanted to preach. I'll tell you this little story. When I was growing up, it was my responsibility to care for the chickens. I fell in love with raising chickens. It became my obligation. It became my mission. It became my duty, and I raised chickens like no one else could raise chickens. I became very good at it. I was only seven-and-a-half, eight, nine years old, but I did it until I left home at the age of 17 in 1957 to go off to college.

John Lewis Interview Photo
I had to take the fresh eggs, mark them with a pencil, place them under the sitting hen and wait for three long weeks for the little chicks to hatch. And you may ask, "Why did you mark the fresh egg with a pencil before you placed them under the sitting hen?" Well, from time to time another hen would get on that same nest, and there would be some more fresh eggs, and you had to be able to tell the fresh eggs from the eggs that were already under the sitting hen. When these little chicks were hatched, I would fool the sitting hen, I would cheat on the sitting hen. I would take these little chicks and give them to another hen. I'd put them in a box with a lantern, raise them on their own, and get some more fresh eggs, mark them with a pencil, place them under the sitting hen, and encouraging the sitting hen to stay on the nest for another three weeks. I kept on cheating on the sitting hen and fooling the sitting hen.

We used to get the Sears Roebuck Catalog. This big, thick book. Some people called it the Ordering Book. Some people called it the Wish Book. "I wish I had this, I wish I had that." And I would look at this catalogue and just wish that I had an incubator or a hatcher so that I wouldn't have to cheat on the sitting hen. The most inexpensive hatcher, I think, was $18.98 and I just kept on cheating on these sitting hens. We used to order everything from Sears Roebuck. Our clothing, our farm supply, our chicken wire, everything. And one of my uncles one Christmas had Santa Claus bring me a Bible.

I learned to read the Bible, and then I started speaking and preaching and playing church with my brothers and sisters and first cousins. We would gather all of our chickens in the chicken house or in the chicken yard, and the chickens -- along with my brothers and sisters and first cousins -- would make up the congregation, and I would start speaking or preaching. And I say now, when I look back on it, some of these chickens would bow their heads. Some of these chickens would shake their heads. They never quite said "Amen" but they tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues listen to me today in the Congress, and some of those chickens were a little more productive. At least they produced eggs.

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This page last revised on Mar 18, 2015 00:24 EST
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