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If you like John Lewis's story, you might also like:
Willie Brown,
Ernest J. Gaines,
Daniel Inouye,
Frank M. Johnson,
James Earl Jones,
B.B. King,
Coretta Scott King,
Rosa Parks,
Shimon Peres,
Sidney Poitier,
Anthony Romero,
Bill Russell,
Albie Sachs,
Alan Simpson,
Desmond Tutu,
Antonio Villaraigosa,
Oprah Winfrey
and Andrew Young

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

Were you popular in school?

John Lewis Interview Photo
John Lewis: I was very popular as a student, because I was very quiet, but on certain occasions when they had programs they would always call on me. Even in middle school and in high school, they referred to me as "Preacher" because for the most part I would wear a tie to school, even when I had on coveralls or jeans. My mother used to say, "You may have only one pair of slacks, and maybe only one shirt, but it must be clean." So we would wash our clothes in the evening and set them to the fireplace to get dry, iron it late that night or early the next morning, and wear them the next day.

What were your favorite subjects at school?

John Lewis: History. I like to know what happened, how it happened. Literature. I was not good in math. I didn't like science. Literature and history.

Do you remember hearing about it when Rosa Parks said she wasn't going to give up her seat on the bus?

John Lewis: It was on December the 1st, 1955, when Rosa Parks said, "No, I'm not going to get up." It changed my life.

When Rosa Parks said, "No," it changed my life forever, and I've never been the same since. I wanted somehow -- in some way -- to make it to Montgomery. I just wanted to be a part of it. It created a great sense of pride. I felt things were about to change. I knew it was very dangerous because I read about it, I heard about the bombings of the churches, the homes, people being arrested. I had witnessed through news accounts the lynching of Emmett Till. This young teenager from Chicago -- visiting relatives in Mississippi, going to the store -- was accused of whistling or saying something to a white woman, and then later that night, someone coming and grabbing him out of his uncle's house, out of bed, taking him, beating him and throwing him in the river. That all had an impact on me.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

When you graduated from high school and went to college, what were your intentions? What were you going to do?

John Lewis: When I left high school, I wanted to go off to be a minister. I wanted to study religion. I wanted to study philosophy. I applied to go to Troy State College, ten miles from my home. An all white school. I submitted an application, my high school transcript. I never heard a word from the school. Not one word. So I wrote a letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King wrote me back and sent me a round trip Greyhound bus ticket and invited me to come to Montgomery. I told him I wanted to attend Troy State College. It is now known as Troy University. In the meantime, I had applied to go to a little school called American Baptist College because at this college you could work your way through school, and I got accepted. I will never forget it as long as I live.

In September 1957, an uncle of mine gave me a $100 bill, more money than I ever had. He gave me a footlocker, one of these upright trunks that had drawers. You can pull it together, and it had the drapers where you can hang your clothes. So I put everything in that footlocker that I owned except those chickens, and went off to school in September 1957.

John Lewis Interview Photo
John Lewis Interview Photo

When I arrived at this little school, American Baptist, after being there for two weeks, I told one of my teachers that I had been in contact with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And this teacher was a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. They had both attended the same school. He was a minister also. He informed Dr. King that I was in school in Nashville. Martin Luther King, Jr. got back in touch and suggested when I was home for spring break to come and see him. In March of 1958 -- by this time I'm 18 years old -- my father drove me to the Greyhound bus station on a Saturday morning. I boarded a bus and traveled the 50 miles from Troy to Montgomery. I arrived at the Greyhound bus station. A young black lawyer -- I had never seen a lawyer before -- by the name of Fred Gray, who had been the lawyer for Rosa Parks, for Dr. King, and the Montgomery movement, met me at the Greyhound bus station and drove me to the First Baptist Church in downtown Montgomery, pastored by the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, who was a colleague of Dr. King in the Montgomery movement. And he ushered me into the office of the church. I was so scared. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to say. I was about to meet Martin Luther King, Jr. And I saw Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy standing behind a desk, and Dr. King said, "Are you the boy from Troy? Are you John Lewis?" I spoke up and said, "Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis." I gave my whole name. And that was the beginning of my relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr.

I studied in Nashville at American Baptist for four years, and then I went on to Fisk for another two years.

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