Congressman, Civil Rights Icon John Lewis

Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) became part of the civil-rights movement while he was a teenager. From 1963 to 1966, he chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And he became a close associate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Lewis has been a congressman since 1987.

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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. On this Martin Luther King Day, the day before the inauguration of America's first African-American president, we hear from a leader of the civil rights movement who risked his life marching for the right of African-Americans to vote. From 1963 to '66, John Lewis chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, mobilizing students to protest against segregation and for voting rights. He was a leader of the now-famous voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, which ended soon after it started when Alabama state troopers attacked the demonstrators on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma in what became known as Bloody Sunday.

Lewis was a close associate of Martin Luther King. He was the youngest speaker at the 1963 march on Washington, which ended with King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Since 1987, Lewis has served in Congress representing Georgia's 5th District, which includes Atlanta. He recorded our conversation from his office. He told me he grew up in Alabama at a time when there was one county whose population was 80 percent African-American, but there wasn't a single registered black voter.

Congressman Lewis, welcome to Fresh Air, and thank you so much for joining us. When you were a young man, were you ever challenged at the polls? Did you have a hard time registering or did anyone ever try to prevent you from voting?

Rep. JOHN LEWIS (Democrat, Georgia): When I was growing up in rural Alabama, it was impossible for me to register to vote. I didn't become a registered voter until I moved to Tennessee, to Nashville as a student.

GROSS: Why was it impossible?

Rep. LEWIS: Black men and women were not allowed to register to vote. My own mother, my own father, my grandfather and my uncles and aunts could not register to vote because each time they attempted to register to vote, they were told they could not pass the literacy test. And many people were so intimidated, so afraid that they will lose their jobs, they will be evicted from the farms, and they just - they almost gave up.

GROSS: Your parents were sharecroppers. Now...

Rep. LEWIS: My mother and father and many of my relatives had been sharecroppers. They had been tenant farmers like so many people in the South. They knew the stories that had occurred. They knew places in Alabama where people were evicted from their farm, from the plantation. They read about, they heard about incidents in Tennessee where people were evicted from the farms and plantations back in 1956, in 1957 in West Tennessee between Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee.

GROSS: Now because of that did you - did your parents tell you not to bother to try to vote because it would be dangerous, they might lose their farm? I mean, you were - you were educated, you could certainly pass the literacy test.

Rep. LEWIS: My parents told me in the very beginning as a young child when I raised the question about segregation and racial discrimination, they told me not to get in the way, not to get in trouble, not to make any noise. But we had people that were educated. We had teachers, we had high school principals, we had people teaching in colleges and university in Tuskegee, Alabama. But they were told they failed the so-called literacy test.

GROSS: So did you go to the registration place and try to regist er or did you not even bother?

Rep. LEWIS: I didn't bother in Alabama. I didn't seek to get registered until I moved to Tennessee.

GROSS: One of the more dramatic moments of the civil rights movement was a march that you helped lead in 1965 of about 600 people. The march was supposed to be from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama demanding voting rights but the marchers were stopped soon after you started marching, and you were beaten by the police. Would you talk first a little about the goal of that march?

Rep. LEWIS: In 1965, the attempted march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7th was planned to dramatize to the state of Alabama and to the nation that people of color wanted to register to vote. In Selma, you could only attempt to register to vote on the first and third Mondays of each month. You had to go down to the courthouse and get a copy of the so-called literacy test and attempt to pass the test. And people stood in line day in and day out failing to get a copy of the test or failing to pass the test.

So after several hundred people had been arrested and people had been beaten and one young man had been shot and killed, we decided to march. And on Sunday afternoon, March 7, about 600 of us left a little church called Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, and started walking in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion through the streets of Selma. We were walking in twos, no one saying a word. We came to the edge of the bridge crossing the Alabama River, we continued to walk. We came to the highest point on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Down below, we saw a sea of blue - Alabama state troopers. And we kept walking, and we came within hearing distance of the state troopers, and a man identified himself and said, I'm Major John Cloud 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.

In less than a minute and a half, the major said, troopers advance. And you saw these men putting on their gas masks. They came toward us beating us with bull whips, night sticks, trivving(ph) us with horses and releasing the tear gas. I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a night stick. I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die. I had a concussion there at the bridge, and almost 44 years later, I don't recall how I made it back across that bridge through the streets of Selma.

But I do recall being back at the church that Sunday afternoon. The church was full to capacity, more than 2,000 people on the outside, and someone said to me, John, say something to the audience. Speak to them. And I stood up and said something like, I don't understand it - how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam but cannot send troops to Selma, Alabama to protect people who only desires to register to vote.

GROSS: What was the impact, do you think, of that march on the actual passage of the Voting Rights Act?

Rep. LEWIS: The march created a sense of righteous indignation among the American people. When they saw the photographs, when they read the stories, when they heard the news on the radio, watched it on television, they didn't like it. A few days after Bloody Sunday, there wasdemonstration in more than 80 American cities. At the White House, at the Department of Justice people were demanding that the government act.

President Johnson didn't like what he saw. He called Governor Wallace, the governor of Alabama at the time, to come to Washington and tried to get assurance from the governor that he would be able to protect us if we decided to march again. The governor could not assure the president, so President Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard, called up part of the United States military, and eight days after Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson spoke to a joint session of the Congress and made one of the most meaningful speeches any American president had made in modern time on the whole question of voting rights, and he introduced the Voting Rights Act.

And I was sitting in a home in Selma, Alabama that evening when President Johnson spoke to the nation and spoke to the Congress, sitting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And at one point in the speech, before Dr. - before President Johnson, rather, concluded the speech, he said, and we shall overcome - and we shall overcome.

I looked at Dr. King, tears came down his face, and we all cried a little to hear President Johnson say, and we shall overcome. And he said to me and to others in the room, we will make it from Selma to Montgomery, and the Voting Rights Act will be passed.

Finally, two weeks after Bloody Sunday, we started on the third effort to make it from Selma to Montgomery. And 300 of us marched all of the way, but by the time we walked into Montgomery there were more than 25,000 citizens. And that effort led the Congress to debate the Voting Rights Acts and pass that act, and President Johnson signed it into law in August of 1965.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about how your mindset changed to go from what your parents told you, which was don't make trouble, it's too risky, to making a lot of trouble, to leading marches, to be willing to get beaten on the head and knocked unconscious to stand up for what you felt was right?

Rep. LEWIS: When growing up, I saw segregation. I saw racial discrimination. I saw those signs that said white men, colored men. White women, colored women. White waiting. And I didn't like it. I would ask my mother and ask my parents over and over again, why? They said, that's the way it is. Don't get in the way, don't get in trouble. I was so inspired by Rosa Parks in 1955. I was 15 years old. I was inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. I heard his words on all radio. It seemed like he was saying to me, John Lewis, you too can make a contribution.

GROSS: What was he saying on the radio?

Rep. LEWIS: He was saying...

GROSS: Was this a sermon or something or a speech?

Rep. LEWIS: It was a speech but also a sermon. He was speaking at a church in Montgomery. And he was saying, in effect, that we must not just be concerned about the Pearly Gates and the streets with milk and honey. We have to be concerned about the streets of Montgomery and the doors of Woolworth. That we have to be concerned about jobs, about blacks working as cashiers, of people being able to try on clothing and bring down those signs. And I said to myself, if I ever got a chance to strike a blow against segregation and racial discrimination, I'm going to play my part or do my part.

I was so inspired by Dr. King that in 1956, with some of my brothers and sisters and first cousins - I was only 16 years old - we went down to the public library trying to check out some books, and we were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only and not for colors. It was a public library. I never went back to that public library until July 5th, 1998 - by this time I'm in the Congress - for a book signing of my book, "Walking with the Wind."

GROSS: Your memoir.

Rep. LEWIS: And they gave me a library card after the program was over. And I was inspired. I studied the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence in Nashville as a student, and I staged a sitting-in in the fall of 1959 and got arrested the first time in February 1960.

GROSS: Now, you describe the difficulty your parents had accepting the risks that you were taking as a civil rights activist. As an activist, did you find it was difficult to convince the older generation to join up with the movement? Was it easier to convince younger people than older people?

Rep. LEWIS: It was much easier to convince younger people, to convince students, whether they were high school or college students. In the South during that period, there was so much fear. There were people that were afraid to be a friend(ph). But there were others who said, we'll hold the mass meetings, the rallies, the voter registration workshop in a church. It was this feeling, well, it's taking place in a church. It must be OK. It must be all right.

There was ministers, religious leaders that was afraid to say anything from their pulpits because they thought, for good reason, the church could be burned down, could be bombed. So we had to do a lot of convincing. And we would go into the fields where people were working in the fields and try to convince some of the field workers. We would go into beauty shops, the barber shops, knock on the doors of people's homes trying to get them to become participant, to get involved, to come to a rally, come to a mass meeting.

GROSS: Give me a sense of what you'd say.

Rep. LEWIS: We would said to people, you know, you've been living here for 40 years, for 50 years. Your street is not paved. You have a dirt road. You don't have clean water. If you want to change that, you must register and you must vote. You can get someone else elected. Come to a mass meeting, come next Monday. The neighbors are coming. Your uncle is coming. Your children are coming. You should be there. I tell people, we're going to have a march for the right to vote. Don't be afraid. You may get arrested, but a lot of other people will be getting arrested with you. And some people would be convinced, and some would not.

GROSS: My guest is Congressman John Lewis of Georgia. We'll talk more about his years as a civil rights activist, his memories of Martin Luther King and his thoughts about Obama's inauguration after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

If you're just joining us, my guest is Congressman John Lewis of George, and we're talking about his years as a civil rights activist.

On this Martin Luther King Day, I'd love to hear the story of how you first met Reverend King.

Rep. LEWIS: In 1957, when I finished high school, I was 17 years old. This was two years after the Montgomery bus walkout, two years after Rosa Parks had taken a seat, and Dr. King had emerged as a national leader.

I wanted to attend a little college about 10 miles from my home, an all-white state college. I submitted my high school application. I never heard a word from the college, so I wrote a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I didn't tell my mother or my father. Dr. King wrote me back, sent me a round-trip Greyhound bus ticket and invited me to come to Montgomery to see him.

In the meantime, I had been accepted at a little college in Nashville, Tennessee, so in September 1957 I went off to school to Nashville. And after being there for two weeks, I told one of my teachers that I had been in contact with Dr. King. This teacher informed Dr. King that I was in school in Nashville, so Martin Luther King, Jr. got back in touch with me and suggested when I was home for spring break to come and see him. So my father drove me to the Greyhound bus station. I boarded the bus to travel from Troy to Montgomery.

And a young lawyer by the name of Fred Gray, who was 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 and ushered me into the office of the church. I saw Martin Luther King, Jr. standing behind the desk. I was so scared I didn't know what to say or what to do. And Dr. King spoke up and said, are you the boy from Troy? Are you John Lewis? And I said, Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis - I gave him my whole name. And that was my meeting of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for the first time.

GROSS: So what did he do? Did he try to encourage you to keep trying to get into that white college, or did he say, forget college, just come join the movement, work with me?

Rep. LEWIS: No. Martin Luther King, Jr. said to me, we want to help. If you want to go to Troy State, we will help you. We would hire Fred Gray as the lawyer to file a suit against Troy State. But he went on to say, if you really pursue this effort, your family home can be bombed or burned down. They could lose their jobs. You may be beaten. Things can happen to you but you must be willing to do it. And I told him I was willing to do it. But he said, you must go home and talk to your mother and talk to your father and get them to be willing to file the suit.

So that afternoon, I went back to Troy, Alabama, met with my mother, met with my father, told them about the discussion I had with Dr. King. And they were so scared, they were so frightened, they didn't want to have anything to do with me pursuing my effort to enter for a state college. So I continued to study in Nashville.

GROSS: And did other things in the civil rights movement instead.

Rep. LEWIS: Well, I continued the sit-ins, got on the Freedom Rides and became an active participant not just in Nashville but throughout the American South.

GROSS: What impact did his assassination have on you?

Rep. LEWIS: The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. made me very, very sad, and I morned and I cried like many of our citizens did. As a matter of fact, when I heard that he was - that he had been assassinated, I was with Robert Kennedy in Annapolis, campaigning with him. But somehow I said to myself, I'm not going to become bitter or hostile. I'm not going to give up or give in. I threw myself more into the campaign, and I made a commitment to myself that I would do what I can to continue the work of Dr. King, and later, after Bobbie Kennedy was assassinated two months later, to continue his effort to make our country a more just, a more fair country.

GROSS: Congressman John Lewis of Georgia will be back in the second half of the show. He was a leader of the civil rights movement and a close associate of Martin Luther King. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross, back with Congressman John Lewis of Georgia. In the '60s, he was a leader of the civil rights movement and a close associate of Martin Luther King. He risked his life leading a voting rights march that was planned to go from Selma to Montgomery but it ended quickly when the demonstrators were attacked by Alabama state troopers. Just a few months after that march and partly as a result of it, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, outlawing discriminatory practices. It was signed by President Johnson in August 1965.

Do you think that there have been incidences where the African-American vote has been suppressed in recent years in spite of the Voting Rights Act?

Rep. LEWIS: There have been efforts in recent years and as recently as this past election with it being a deliberate and systematic attempt to suppress the African-American vote. We had a case in some parts of Virginia where people tried to say to African-Americans - to would-be Democratic voters, you're not supposed to vote on Tuesday, November 4th. You're supposed to vote on Wednesday, November 5th. They were saying, in effect, that there's going to be such a big turnout, such a massive turnout, and you don't want to stand in these long line.

This is not necessarily a state, a political party doing it, but it's individuals. And there have been cases where people go to the polls planning to vote, waiting in line, and you see people standing, taking names, taking the license plates on cars of how law enforcement people are standing nearby and telling people that if you go and attempt to vote, you cannot vote becase you owe a bill - you haven't paid your taxes. And people are intimidated. They're harassed.

GROSS: I want to quote something that you wrote in an op-ed piece in October of 2003. And this was about gay rights and the right for gay people to marry. You wrote: I have fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation. I've heard the reasons for opposing civil marriage for same-sex couples. Cut through the distractions, and they stink of the same fear, hatred and intolerance I have known in racism and in bigotry.

Now, I've heard some African-American leaders say that it's wrong to make - I'm not quoting you here, I'm saying this part myself. Your quote has ended. And I'm saying, I've heard some African-American leaders say that it's wrong to make any connection between the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement because discrimination against African-Americans and discrimination against gays are completely - completely different things, and being gay and being black are completely different things. What's your take on that?

Rep. LEWIS: Well, I do not buy that argument. I do not buy that argument. And today, I think more than ever before, we have to speak up and speak out to end discrimination based on sexual orientation. Dr. King used to say when people talked about blacks and whites falling in love and getting married - you know, at one time, in the state of Virginia, in my native state of Alabama, in Georgia and other parts of the South blacks and whites could not fall in love and get married. And Dr. King took a simple argument and said, races don't fall in love and get married. Individuals fall in love and get married.

It's not the business of the federal government. It's not the business of the state government to tell two individuals that they cannot fall in love and get married. And so I go back to what I said and wrote those lines a few years ago, that I fought too long and too hard against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up and fight and speak out against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

And you hear people defending marriage. Gay marriage is not a threat to heterosexual marriage. It is time for us to put that argument behind us. You cannot separate the issue of civil rights. It one of those absolute, immutable principle - we got to have not just civil rights for some but civil rights for all of us.

GROSS: When you say not just civil rights for some, you even mean not just civil rights for African-American but for gay people too?

Rep. LEWIS: Not just civil rights for African-American, other minorities, but civil rights also for gay people.

GROSS: Are you concerned that now that Barack Obama is about to become president that a lot of people might be thinking, whew, wow, solved the racism problem, glad that's over, don't have to worry about that anymore. Don't have to take that into account anymore.

Rep. LEWIS: I am concerned that there are some feelings in some quarters in some corners that - what do people of color want now? We elected Barack Obama as president. It's over. People talk about the post-racial America. I see his election not as the end but as a continuum. But we're not there yet. We have not yet created the beloved community that Dr. King spoke of. I see this as a down payment - a major down payment on the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. Even with this election, we still have a great distance to go before we lay down the bird in the race.

GROSS: Of all the people who have passed on who you were close to, who are some of the people who you were - who you most wish were here today to witness the inauguration of America's first African-American president?

Rep. LEWIS: Oh, I wish - I truly wish that so many people, many of these just indigenous people that stood in those unmovable lines in the heart of the Deep South. Many of the people that were on that bridge on Bloody Sunday, I wish they could be here today, but many of them are gone on. Individual like Fannie Lou Hamer, sharecropper in the Delta, Mississippi who was beaten but who testified at the Democratic Convention in 1964.

I wish that Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., President Johnson, President Kennedy and others could witness what is happening in America. There's countless individuals that I wish could be on the Mall, on the steps of the Capitol and see what is happening in America.

GROSS: And where will you be on Inauguration Day?

Rep. LEWIS: On Inauguration Day I will be on the platform sitting on the steps behind President Barack Obama. I don't know how I'm going to take it all in because from sitting on the steps, I will be able to look right down the Mall and see past the Washington Monument and see the Lincoln Memorial where we stood more than 45 years ago. And during those days, during that period, many of the people who voted for him could not register and vote.

GROSS: Congressman John Lewis, thank you so much for talking with us.

Rep. LEWIS: Well, thank you very much. Thank you.

GROSS: John Lewis spoke to us from his office on Capitol Hill. He's been a Democratic Congressman from Georgia since 1987. Coming up, coming of age in the post-civil rights era. We talk with journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates. This is Fresh Air.

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