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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,
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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 Interview (page: 4 / 7)

Champion of Civil Rights

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  John Lewis

In addition to Martin Luther King, what other thinkers or philosophers, what other people have affected your thinking and inspired you?

John Lewis: In addition to Martin Luther King, Jr., there was a young Methodist student at seminary. A young man by the name of Jim Lawson, James Lawson. He was part of something called the Methodist Student Movement. He was also active in an organization called A Fellowship for Reconciliation. He started conducting these nonviolence workshops, and I started attending these workshops. I was one of the first students to attend, and he started talking about the great religions of the world, certain elements that ran through all of the great religions of the world. And he started talking about nonviolence and passive resistance, Thoreau and civil disobedience, what Ghandi attempted to do in India, what they attempted to do in South Africa, what they accomplished in India. And he talked about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the nonviolent effort in Montgomery. And for an entire school year every Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. a group of us -- students -- would go and study with this young guy studying the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. We had what we called "role playing," "social drama." Black and white college students, and some high school students. And I became imbued with this idea of what we called the "Beloved Community," a community at peace with itself -- that if you want to create the Beloved Community, a good society or a truly interracial democracy, if that is the goal, if that is the end, then the way, the means, must be one of peace and one of love, one of nonviolence. He taught us that means and end are inseparable.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

I'll tell you, I grew up overnight. By the fall of 1959 we had what we called "test sit-ins" in Nashville. We went through a period of role playing and social drama, and then it came time for a group of black and white college students to go to downtown Nashville and just sit at a lunch counter, to establish the fact that people were denied service. It was in November and December of 1959. And then from a sit-in started in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February the 1st, 1960, we started sitting in on a regular basis. And it was there that, by sitting down, I think we were really standing up. I saw many of us, and I know in my own case I grew up while I was sitting on a lunch counter stool. I became a different person. I became a different human being.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

What went through your mind? What was in your head the very first time you sat down at a segregated lunch counter?

John Lewis: Somehow, in some way, I just felt that we were involved in something that was so large, so necessary, so right. It was almost holy. It was something very righteous and something very pure about it. I was sitting there with other young college students. For the most part we were well dressed, we were orderly, we were peaceful, and we were looking straight ahead, or either we were doing our homework, and people would come up and call us "niggers." They would come up and spit on us, put lighted cigarettes out in our hair or down our backs, pull us off the lunch counter stool, and we didn't strike back. At times we would just look straight ahead. I just felt that we had to do what we were doing and that it was necessary.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Weren't you ever just afraid?

John Lewis: As a participant in the movement, as I was sitting in, I came to that point where I lost all sense of fear.

I will never forget in late February 1960, one morning we were preparing to sit in, and a very influential citizen of Nashville came to the church where we were gathering and said if we go down on this particular day the officials were going to allow people to beat us, to pull us off the lunch counter stools, and then going to arrest us, and, "Maybe you shouldn't go. Maybe it's too dangerous." And we all said we had to go, and we went down. When I was growing up, my mother and father and family members said, "Don't get in trouble. Don't get in the way." I got in trouble. I got in the way. It was necessary trouble. While we were sitting there and we were being pulled off the lunch counter stools and then beaten, the local officials, police officials, the chief of police and others, came up and placed us all under arrest. I was arrested along with 87 other students. The Nashville sit-ins became the first mass arrest in the sit-in movement, and I was taken to jail. I'll tell you, I felt so liberated. I felt so free. I felt like I had crossed over. I think I said to myself, "What else can you do to me? You beat me. You harassed me. Now you have placed me under arrest. You put us in jail. What's left? You can kill us." But as a group, and I know as one person, we were determined to see the end of segregation and racial discrimination in places of public accommodation. So I lost my sense of fear. You know, no one would like to be beaten. No one would like to go to jail. Jail is not a pleasant place. No one liked to suffer pain, but for the common good we were committed.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

John Lewis Interview Photo

What did your parents think of all this?

John Lewis: My mother, my dear mother, she was so worried. She was so troubled. She didn't know that I was even involved, because I hadn't had any discussion until she heard that I was in jail, when the school official called and informed her that I was in jail with several other students. The next day or so I got a letter saying, "Get out of the movement. Get out of that mess. You went to school to get an education. You're going to get yourself hurt. You're going to get yourself killed." And I wrote her back and said, "I think I did the right thing. It was the right thing to do." Years later she became very, very supportive, especially after the Voting Rights Act was passed and she was allowed to become a registered voter.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

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