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John Lewis

Interview: John Lewis
Champion of Civil Rights

June 10, 2004
Chicago, Illinois

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What was it like growing up in rural Alabama when you were a kid in the 1940s and '50s?

John Lewis: It was very hard and very difficult growing up in rural Alabama during the '40s and the '50s. I grew up on a farm in a family of ten children, a wonderful mother, wonderful father, wonderful grandparents and great-grandparents.

I grew up very poor but in 1944, when I was four years old -- and I do remember when I was four -- my father had saved $300, and with the $300 a guy gave him 110 acres of land, and on this land we raised a lot of cotton and corn, peanuts, hogs, cows and chickens. It was very hard, hard work. I saw my mother and my father, my grandparents and great-grandparents, and later as children we all had to work from sun up to sundown, and some years we didn't make enough or produce enough to live on.

But I also saw segregation.

I saw racial discrimination as a young child. I saw those signs that said "White Men, Colored Men, White Women, Colored Women." If you go to the little town of Troy, about 50 miles south of Montgomery on a Saturday, you go to a theater, and all of the little white children went downstairs and all of the black children, we all had to go upstairs to the balcony. I remember as a young child with some of my brothers and sisters and first cousins going down to the public library trying to get library cards, trying to check some books out, and we were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only and not for "coloreds." But I also recall in 1954, when I was 14 years old and in ninth grade, when the Supreme Court decision came down. I thought for the first time that I would be attending a desegregated school, a better school. I wouldn't have the hand-me-down books, wouldn't be traveling in a broken down school bus. The school wouldn't be over crowded and poorly staffed, but it didn't happen for me. I would ask my mother and ask my father, "Why segregation? Why racial discrimination?" And they would say, "That's the way it is. That's the way it is. Don't get in trouble. Don't get in the way."

About a year and a half later...

I heard about Rosa Parks, and I heard Martin Luther King, Jr.'s voice on an old radio, and the words of Dr. King and the action of Rosa Parks inspired me. I followed the drama of the Montgomery bus boycott. We were too poor to have a subscription to the local newspaper -- it was called The Montgomery Advertiser -- so my grandfather had a subscription, and when he would finish reading his paper we would get his paper and read about what was going on in Montgomery and listen to the radio. We didn't have a television then. And Dr. King was so inspiring, so inspiring. I wanted to find a way to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement and become part of it. I would hear him speak. I just felt that he was speaking to me. Like he was saying, "John Lewis, you can do it. You can get involved. You must get involved." And when I got the chance, I got involved.

John Lewis Interview Photo


What kind of student were you as a kid?

John Lewis: I was not the brightest student. I studied. I worked hard, but from time to time my mother and father, especially my father, wanted us to stay out of school and work in the field, and I knew I needed to get an education. I wanted to get an education. So sometimes when my father would suggest that we'd have to stay home and plot a mule, help gather the crops, I would get up early in the morning, get dressed, and get my book bag and hide under the front porch, and when I heard the school bus coming up the hill, I would run out and get on that school bus and go off to school. And sometimes my father would say, "You know, I told you to stay home, but you went off to school." And we would talk, but he knew that I saw the value of education and I wanted to get an education. I didn't like working out in the hot sun picking cotton, pulling corn, gathering peanuts, and I wanted to get an education because I knew I needed it, and I knew it would be better for me in the days and years to come.

What made you aware of that? There must have been thousands of other young black men and women who did not see that need for getting out of the fields, for getting an education.

John Lewis: I had a wonderful teacher. One of my teachers was wonderful. She would tell us over and over again, "Get an education. Get something that no one will be able to take from you. Get an education. You won't have to work like that in the field making starvation wages. Get an education." And she would say, "Read, my child. Read. Read everything." And at our home we had very few books, so at school there were more books. There were magazines, there were newspapers, and I tried to read everything.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Did your belief in nonviolence ever waiver? Did you ever question the method?

John Lewis: As a participant, and even today, I have never ever questioned the method, never questioned this idea, this concept of passive resistance. I believe in nonviolence as a way of life, as a way of living. I believe that this idea is one of those immutable principles that is nonnegotiable if you're going to create a world community at peace with itself. You have to accept nonviolence as a way of life, as a way of living. I thought I was going to die a few times. On the Freedom Rides in the year 1961, when I was beaten at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery, I thought I was going to die. On March 7th, 1965, when I was hit in the head with a night stick by a State Trooper at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, I thought I was going to die. I thought I saw death, but nothing can make me question the philosophy of nonviolence.

Or want to retaliate?

John Lewis Interview Photo
John Lewis: No, I cannot and will not retaliate. We grew to respect the dignity and the worth of every human being. When we were harassed by Sheriff Clark in Selma or Bull Connor in Birmingham, when I was being beaten by an angry mob in Montgomery, you try to put yourself in the place of the people that are abusing you, and see that person as a human being, and try to do what you can to win that person over, to change that person. In a sense we all were victims, victims of a system.

Let me ask about March 7th, known as Bloody Sunday. What was going through your mind when you saw the array of State Troopers on horseback, and you and Hosea Williams at the front of that line walked into that?


John Lewis: As we started walking across the Alabama River, across the Edmund Pettus bridge, I really thought that we would be arrested and taken to jail. I was prepared to be arrested, and I was wearing a backpack, and in this backpack I had two books, an apple, an orange, toothbrush and toothpaste. I thought we were going to go to jail. I wanted to have something to read, something to eat, and since I was going to be in jail with my friends, colleagues and neighbors, I wanted to be able to brush my teeth. And we get to the high point, highest point on that bridge. Down below we saw the Alabama State Troopers, the Sheriff's Deputies, members of Sheriff Clark's posse, and when Major John Claude said, "This is an unlawful march." I think he said, "I am Major John Claude of the Alabama State Troopers. This is an unlawful march. You will not be allowed to continue. I give you three minutes to disperse and return to your church." And I think Hosea Williams said, "Major, will you give us a moment to pray?" And before we could even get word back, he said, "Troopers advance." I knew then that we were going to be beaten. And you saw these men putting on their gas masks and they came towards us beating us with night sticks, pushing us, trampling us with horses, and releasing the tear gas. I became very concerned about the other people in the march, because I thought I was going to die. I just sort of said to myself, "This is it. This is the end of the road for me. I'm going to die right here on this bridge." And to this day, 39 years later, I don't know how I made it back across the bridge, through the streets of Selma, back to that little church that we left from, but I do recall being back at that church that Sunday afternoon.

It was Brown Chapel AME Church. When we got back, the church was full to capacity. Several hundred people on the outside were trying to get in to protest what had happened. Someone asked me to say something to the audience, and I stood up and said, "I don't understand it. President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam but cannot send troops to Selma, Alabama to protect people whose only desire is to register to vote." The next thing I knew I had been admitted to the Good Samaritan hospital in Selma.

Was that a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement?

John Lewis: I think what happened in Selma was a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and probably was one of the finest hours in the movement. Because of what happened in Selma, I mean people saw the film footage of what happened on television that Sunday night, that Monday morning. There was a sense of righteous indignation. People didn't like it. The American people didn't like it. There were demonstrations in almost every major city in America, on almost every major college campus, at the White House, the Department of Justice, at American Embassies abroad. I remember Dr. King coming to visit me that Monday morning in the hospital and he said, "John, don't worry. We'll make it from Selma to Montgomery. The Voting Rights Act will be passed." And he told me that he was issuing a call for religious leaders to come to Selma the next day, and the next day, that Tuesday, March 9th, more than a thousand ministers, priests, rabbis and nuns came to Selma and marched across the bridge to the point where we had been beaten two days earlier.

President Johnson called Governor Wallace to come to the White House to try to get assurance from him that he would be able to protect us if we decided to march again. Wallace could not assure the President. Lyndon Johnson was so moved that he had to do something. The American people were saying, "You must act." The Congress was saying, "You must do something." So he went on television, and he said...

"At times history and fate meet at a single place in man's unending search for freedom. So it was more than a century ago at Lexington and at Concord. So it was at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama." He condemned the violence in Selma, and he mentioned the fact that one good man, a man of God, was killed. Reverend James Reed, a white minister from Boston, had participated in a march on March 9th. And then the night of March 9th he went out to try to get something to eat with two or three other white ministers, and they were jumped and beaten by members of the Klan, and a day or so later he died at a local hospital in Birmingham. President Johnson recognized that, but before he closed that speech and introduced the Voting Rights Act he said, "We shall overcome." He said it more than once, "And we shall overcome." And he became the first President to use the theme song of the Civil Rights Movement in a major speech, and Dr. King was so moved he started crying, and we all cried a little when we heard Lyndon Johnson say, "And we shall overcome."

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.

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.

John Lewis Interview Photo

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.

If a member of this generation, one of these young men or women came to you, and asked you for advice, what would you say to them?

John Lewis Interview Photo
John Lewis: If a young person of this generation came to me and said, "What should I do? What should I be doing?" I would say, "Find a way to follow the dictates of your conscience. Find your own inner compass and follow it. Do what is right. Be kind. Don't hate. Love is a better way. Don't become cynical. Forget about your own circumstances and find a way to get involved in the circumstances of others. Try to do something to serve the common good."

What books would you tell them to read?

John Lewis: I would say, "Read the literature of the Civil Rights Movement. Read the literature. Read Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch. Read David Halberstam's book, The Children." There are several other books -- I would tell them to read my little book, Walking with the Wind, which is a memoir of the Movement -- but also watch the videos. Watch Eyes on the Prize. There's a lot of film footage on the Movement. Another generation of young people, just ordinary young people, got out there and they brought about a nonviolent revolution in America. I would say to them, "Read the literature. Study the literature of the Movement and don't be afraid."

Are there still battles to be won?

John Lewis: There are many battles. There's so much that needs to be done. We need to protect the environment. Save this little planet. Not just this little piece of real estate we call America, but save the planet. We have a right to know what is in the food we eat, what is in the water we drink, what is in the air we breathe.

We need to find a way to make this world a little more peaceful. Maybe this generation of young people can get humankind to come to another level, to move to a higher level where we can lay down the tools and instruments of violence and war and stop the madness. Maybe in our own country we can do something about providing health care for all of our citizens, that some of the resources that we use to build bombs and missiles and guns can be used for education, for health care, taking care of the elderly, our children, the disabled, the homeless, and find a cure for some of the ills and diseases that impact human beings, not just here in America but around the world.

As a kid being turned away from the public library in Troy, Alabama, could you ever have imagined the life you've lived, and the level of achievement that you have realized?

John Lewis: If someone had told me when I was growing up outside of Troy, Alabama, that one day I'd be on the Atlanta City Council, elected by the good citizens of Atlanta, or that one day I would be in the House of Representatives, elected by the good people of Georgia, I would say, "You're crazy. You're out of your mind. You don't know what you're talking about." I feel more than lucky. I feel very blessed.

When I go back to Alabama and go back to some of these places, go back to Nashville or even in Atlanta, pass by places that years ago I was arrested for sitting there, and now you go back and people invite you to come by and I go back to this little drug store in the little town of Troy! Years ago, when I was growing up, we had to go in and get a soda and bring it outside to drink it, and now I go back and the owner invites me to come in and have something to drink or eat with him. It's amazing. Troy State University, for an example, after I got elected to the Congress, the local high school and the Mayor and the business people had John Lewis Day there. Troy State led the parade through the little town. The chancellor, who was a close friend of Governor Wallace, came up to me and said, "We understand you wanted to attend Troy State years ago. We would love for you to come back and visit, and we'll give you an honorary degree." So a few years ago they gave me an honorary degree from Troy State. So when I go there and speak, I tell the students I got my education from Troy State the easy way.

Did you ever get a library card from the public library in Troy?

John Lewis: On July 5th, 1998, I went back to the Pike County Public Library in Troy, Alabama, for a book signing of my book, Walking with the Wind, and hundreds of black and white citizens showed up. It was almost like a family reunion. The land that my father and mother lived on, my grandfather lived on, my great-grandfather lived on, the people that owned the land, their offspring came to the book signing. That evening they had a lot of food. They had a little program and they gave me a library card. It took me from 1956 to 1998 to get it, but they gave it to me, and I cherish this library card. I have it in a drawer at my house in Washington.

What do you think were the greatest obstacles you had to overcome to achieve what you've achieved?

John Lewis: More than anything else, I had to combat the barriers, and we tore down those barriers. I just had to set a sail against the wind, those strong winds, to end segregation and racial discrimination, but somehow, in some way, I didn't let those barriers keep me down. When I would get arrested from time to time and thrown in jail one day, and I'd get out, I'd go right back the next day. That's how I got arrested 40 times. There were people who didn't want me to march all the way from Selma to Montgomery because I had been hurt, but two weeks after Bloody Sunday I was back on the line, marching all the way. They didn't want me to continue the Freedom Ride from Montgomery to Jackson, Mississippi, because I had been hurt, because I had a patch on my head but I kept going. You have to be determined. You have to feel that somehow in some way you can make it, that you will survive, that it's all going to work out.

Thank you very much.

John Lewis: Thank you, sir.

We truly appreciate it.




This page last revised on Apr 22, 2008 16:13 EST