Congressman John Lewis: Touching A Deep Nerve In America’s Conscience

Several years ago, when I had the honor of interviewing Congressman John Lewis for a book I was co-writing, he said that one of his fondest memories was being asked to read from his book Walking with the Wind, A Memoir of the Movement at the public library of his hometown on July 5, 1998. That opportunity was another milestone for him, another way to change history, because as he remembered so clearly, “As a child, I would go down to the public library in the little town of Troy, Alabama, trying to check some books out, and I was told by the librarian that the library was for whites only and not for coloreds. So it was a thrill to return there and read from my book and sign copies for hundreds of people of every size, shape and color. That was my destiny.”’

A conversation with him was engaging in a first-hand account of history.

We remember him kneeling and praying, with blood splattered on his shirt and tie, his head bandaged from the beatings he suffered at the lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960, the Freedom Rides in Montgomery, Alabama in 1961, and on the 1965 Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama—a demonstration that caused President Johnson to call on Congress to amend the Constitution because voters were being denied their rights.

What did it feel like to be involved in such an historic moment?

We were ready,” he said. “We had studied Thoreau, Gandhi and King. We had accepted the philosophy and discipline of non-violence – as not simply a technique, but as an entire way of life. Still, doubt lingers,” he said. “The feeling of not knowing what to expect. I don’t care how many times you do something like this, how many times you sit in, or march, or in any way put yourself in the path of those who might do you harm, you can never know what’s going to happen.”

This is where his courage came in.

As he led a student campaign to integrate the all-white public lunch counters in Georgia, he was confronted at a Woolworth’s by young white men shouting, “Go home, nigger!” and “Get back to Africa!” John and his group had burning cigarettes put out on their heads and on their backs. They were spat on and ketchup and mustard were poured all over them. But they did not respond in kind. As he explained, “We didn’t want to strike back. We didn’t want to hate. We wanted to change things. We wanted to be reconciled. We wanted to win people over.” But some of the onlookers were not ready to be won over. They started swinging. A television crew filmed one of the protesters being bloodied and bruised and silently pulling himself back onto his chair. It was one of the first instances of how television made people aware of a reality they could no longer deny.

This became the first time John was arrested.

“I’d been told over and over again by my parents, don’t get in trouble. And here I was getting in real trouble. But it was good trouble,” he said.
John soon led a march with John and Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Council from Selma to Montgomery, which became remembered forever after as “Bloody Sunday.”

To prepare for the march, John said, “I attended church with six hundred others, where we organized a non-violent workshop. Then we lined up two by two and started walking in an orderly, peaceful fashion. I was wearing a backpack. I assumed we were going to be arrested and go to jail, so in this backpack, I had two books, an apple, an orange, some toothpaste and a toothbrush. I wanted to have something to eat, something to read and, since I was going to be in close quarters with my friends, colleagues and neighbors, I wanted to be able to brush my teeth.”

But what happened next he couldn’t have been prepared for.

He described the scene, “When we reached the crest of the bridge, I stopped dead in my tracks. There, facing us at the bottom of the other side, stood a sea of blue-helmeted, blue-uniformed Alabama state troopers, line after line of them.” Behind them was Sheriff Clark’s posse. There were hundreds of troopers and sheriff’s deputies, many on horseback, carrying clubs, prods, whips and wearing gas masks.

John recalled, “Hosea Williams, the young man walking beside me, asked ‘John, can you swim?’ We both looked down at all of this water below us in the Alabama River. I said, ‘No. Can you?’ He said, ’No.’ Then I told him, ‘But we’re not going to jump, we’re not going back. We’re going forward.’ And we continued to walk. Then a man identified himself as Major John Cloud of the Alabama State Troopers. He said ’This is an unlawful march. It will not be allowed to continue. I’m giving you three minutes to disperse and return to your church.’ A minute later, he gave the command ‘Troopers advance.’ I saw these men put on their gas masks and come toward us. They started beating us with nightsticks, cracking bullwhips, trampling us under their horses’ hooves. I was hit in the head by a State Trooper with a nightstick and had a concussion. I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die. I looked death right in the face but was not afraid. But my legs went out from under me, and I guess I lost consciousness. I just thought that this was part of the price I would have to pay to help make it possible for people in Selma, Alabama and other parts of the south to be able to register to vote.”

John was left bleeding badly. He said, “My head was exploding with pain. There was mayhem all around me. People were weeping, bleeding, vomiting from the tear gas. Men and horses were running right over fallen people.

That evening, ABC News interrupted its Sunday night movie and anchorman Frank Reynolds came on to show fifteen minutes of footage of the attack in Selma. At one point in the film clip, Sheriff Jim Clark’s voice could be heard clearly in the background, yelling, “Get those goddamned niggers.” Viewers also saw John, lying on the ground, struggling to get back on his feet. Then they saw him collapse, unconscious, his skull fractured.

That touched a nerve deep in America’s conscience.

Television, this time, verified reality and helped shape what would happen.

One week later, President Johnson addressed Congress, announcing the introduction of the Voting Rights Act.

John’s life became a history of the civil rights movement.

What does Congressman John Lewis feel has made the difference in his life?

“I’d have to say it’s courage. You must have courage. I describe it as raw courage. The courage to get in the way, to disturb the order of things. When you see things that are wrong, you have to have the courage to stand up and agitate.”

Did he ever think there might be another way to bring about social change besides non-violence?

“I never ever did. And I never will. For me non-violence is one of those immutable principles that you cannot and must not deviate from. I believe Gandhi said it best, ‘It is non-violence or non-existence.’”

May his wisdom, clarity, hope and courage continue to guide us.