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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,
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Antonio Villaraigosa,
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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: 6 / 7)

Champion of Civil Rights

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  John Lewis

At a remarkably young age you assumed a position of leadership. What are the qualities required of leadership? What have you learned about that?

John Lewis Interview Photo
John Lewis: First, a leader should listen and be prepared to lead. Leaders tend to emerge. We didn't just one day go out and say, "We're going to sit in." We didn't go out one day and say, "We're going to march or we're going to go on a Freedom Ride. We studied. We prepared ourselves and we were ready. A leader must get out front, not just on the big issues but the little issues also, and must become an embodiment of ideas and try to build consensus. A leader must believe in him or herself in order to get others to believe in them and to be prepared to follow them. It's hard and difficult to tell other people to grow, to go some place where you haven't been.

Did you ever fear failure?

John Lewis: I never thought that we would fail or that I would fail. I knew from time to time we may make some blunders. We may make some mistakes, but we were not going to fail. I think part of leadership is you must be hopeful. You must be optimistic. You must have this idea that we're not -- that I'm not going to give up. I'm not going to give in. I'm not going to give out that I'm going to hang in there. I'm going to keep the faith. I'm going to keep pushing. I'm going to keep pulling. People accuse me from time to time of being too hopeful, too optimistic, but I think being hopeful, being optimistic is part of being a leader, that in a sense you know where you're going. I know maybe it won't happen in my lifetime, but I know somehow in some way we're going to create the Beloved Community, that we're going to create a national community, a world community that is at peace. And as you pass this way, as you travel life's journey, you must do what you can. You must be part of an investment. You must be part of a down payment on the building of that Beloved Community. You must be part of an installment plan. You have to give your part. You have to give your piece.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

John Lewis Interview Photo
You didn't exactly find a career or a calling. It found you. You couldn't have planned any of this.

John Lewis: I didn't. I didn't have a blueprint. I didn't have a road map. Circumstances, the climate, the environment just pulled me. I talk from time to time about what I call the "spirit of history." Sometimes you have to let the spirit of history use you, and I think I allowed myself to be used by the spirit of history if you want to call it that. I allowed myself to get in the way.

Have you had any regrets over the years?

John Lewis: I don't have any significant regrets except that I wish I had spent more time with individuals like Martin Luther King, Jr. Maybe I would have asked him a few more questions. I didn't have any idea that he would be taken from us. I wish I had got to know Bobby Kennedy much better. These two young people inspired me.

I loved Martin Luther King, Jr. He was my hero. He was a wonderful friend. I remember during the last leg of the march from Selma to Montgomery, we were walking and I think it started raining. He had a little cap on his head, and he took the cap off and he put it on my head and he said, "John, you've been hurt. You need to protect your head. You need to wear this cap." I just thought it was a wonderful something on his part, but he was always so caring and so sharing. And Robert Kennedy, I'll tell you, I saw there was something about him that was so dear. When Dr. King was assassinated, I said to myself -- I had what I call an executive session with myself. I said, "We still have Robert Kennedy." And then two months later Robert Kennedy was taken. The assassination of these two young men was the most difficult time in my life really. The saddest. They were friends. They were people that I loved and admired. I was with Robert Kennedy when we heard that Dr. King had been shot. I was in Indianapolis, Indiana campaigning with him, and I was in his room at the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel and spoke to him about 15 minutes before he went down to make his victory statement. Even today I feel like I must continue to do what I can. And I often wonder, "If Dr. King were here, and Robert Kennedy were, what would they be doing?" So someone must continue to speak up and speak out, because they're not here.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

You put your life and your beliefs on the line. You had to act as an outsider in this society. Since then you've been elected to the Atlanta City Council, you've been elected to the Congress of the United States. You've gone from being an outsider to an insider. How does that affect your role, your thinking?

John Lewis: Being an elected official, whether on the Atlanta City Council or as a member of Congress, I don't think it had much of an impact on me. I don't think I've changed that much.

I still talk about the Beloved Community. I still talk about the one America, one family, one house. The American house, the world house, we all live in the same house. Sometimes I feel like I've passed this way once before. I think the movement and what I went through during the height of the Civil Rights Movement prepared me to stand up and fight for what I think is right and fair and just, but it also prepared me to be patient in a sense, to take the long hard look. That the struggle to redeem the soul of America, to create the Beloved Community, or to bring about change, is not a struggle that lasts for one day or one month or one year, but is a struggle of a lifetime. So if you're trying to get a piece of legislation through the Atlanta City Council, or try to get a piece of legislation through the Congress, or try to change your fellow members to move to a certain -- you just keep working at it. You don't give up. You hang in there. And that's what we did during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and that's what we continue to do today, for the fight is not just for today, but it's for tomorrow and the next year and years to come.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

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