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Transcript from January 14, 1999
MLK's Legacy with Congressman John Lewis (D-GA)



npr_host: Please send in your questions for Congressman Lewis now.

npr_host: At this point we'd like to welcome Congressman Lewis

Congressman_John_Lewis: Good evening. It's great to be here.

npr_host: Can you tell us a bit about your first hand experience with the Civil Rights Movement?

Congressman_John_Lewis: I was born in Alabama, 50 miles from Montgomery, in southeast Alabama, in a the little town of about 13,000 people just outside of Troy. When I would visit the cities of Montgomery or Birmingham, I saw the signs that said white men and white women, I saw the signs that said colored lady, colored men. In 1950 when I was 10 years old I tried to check a book out of the local library, I tried to get a library card and I was told that the library was only for white people and not people of color. It had an unbelievable impact on me. I couldn't understand it. But in 1955 when I was 15 years old I heard about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. And, 3 years later I met MLK and a year later I got involved in the civil rights movement.

Congressman_John_Lewis: Dr. King was one of the most inspiring human beings I ever met. He was such a warm, compassionate and loving human being.

npr_host: How was Dr. King inspiring on a personal level, as much as in public?

Congressman_John_Lewis: MLK Jr. taught me how to say no to segregation and I can hear him saying now ... when you straighten up your back -- no man can ride you. He said stand up straight and say no to racial discrimination.

npr_host: You took very quick action, tell us more, please.

Congressman_John_Lewis: As a young student I got involved in that, studying the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. And as students -- young people black and white we would go downtown in Nashville, Atlanta, Birmingham and other cities in the South ... and we would sit down -- we did what we called sit-ins at lunch counters. These places refused to serve black students. And we'd have white students and black students sitting together. And some of the places were like Woolworth stores, where you could go in and buy things, but you couldn't order a hamburger. And while sitting, sometimes people would come in and beat us, light cigarettes out in our hair, down our backs, throw us off the lunch counter stools, and sometimes kick us and leave us lying down on the floor. We got arrested. When I was growing up I was told over and over again -- don't get into trouble. So as students we were getting into trouble -- but it was good trouble.

DC_Vyf asks:
Why is there no big movement for social change?

Congressman_John_Lewis: There is a need for a movement of non-violent direct action. It's amazing to me that people are so quiet ... so silent. With everything that's going on in Washington right now, people should be rising up in a non-violent fashion, the way we did in the 60's.

npr_host: Do people just not care?

Congressman_John_Lewis: I think people care, I think people are reluctant to act, that maybe people in power won't act. We're spending too much of our time on investigation than on health care, education ... etc

filippomiller asks: How have capital policies on civil rights issues changed from '63 to '99?

Congressman_John_Lewis: 1963, because of the sense of moral authority that the civil rights movement had, we were able to get people to respond, because of the quality of our demand and our sense of moral authority.

johnm_joebloggs_cooldude56 asks: why won't people in power act?"

Congressman_John_Lewis: It's a good question. People raised the same question and concern 35, 40 years ago, but it took a mass non-violent direct action to get people in high places to move. I got involved in the sit-ins, in the freedom ride. I was beaten and left unconscious at the Greyhound bus station in 1961. I was beaten by an angry mob. It gave me a greater determination to work much harder and I haven't given up the idea of an inter-racial democracy.

Congressman_John_Lewis: Between 1960 and 1966, I was arrested and jailed 40 times. In 1963 I became the national chair of the student non-violent coordinating committee. And, at the age of 23 ... I was the youngest speaker at the march on Washington, when Dr. King gave his "I have a Dream Speech." People were being denied the right to vote simply because of the color of their skin.

krockett_2065101 asks: What is the one thing that you remember most about MLK? [quote or funny story]

Congressman_John_Lewis: Dr. King had a great sense of humor and he loved a good meal. From time to time when we were traveling in the South he would see some restaurant or a hole-in-the wall place to eat and he would say, we should stop -- we should get something to eat, it may be our last chance, we should go on a full stomach.

Congressman_John_Lewis: But on one occasion, on -- March 1965 we were walking along, marching, and it started to rain. I didn't have anything on my head. He had a little brown cap he was wearing. He took the cap off his head and gave it to me and he said, "John you should put this on-- you've been hurt". A few days earlier I had been beaten by a group of state troopers and I had a concussion. So he thought it was important that my head be protected. I'll never forget it; it was such an act of compassion and concern.

Musicman_21 asks: Was it intimidating meeting MLK?

Congressman_John_Lewis: Well the first time I met him, I was only 18 years old in 1958 and he had emerged for me as someone bigger than life. Two miles from where I grew up in Alabama, there was a white college -- Troy State College -- and I had applied to go there. I never heard anything from the school so I wrote MLK a letter and told him about my desire to go to the school. He wrote me back and sent me a round trip Greyhound bus ticket. And invited me to come to Montgomery to meet with him. One Saturday, my father drove me to the Greyhound bus station, I traveled the 50 miles from my home. A young black lawyer met me at the bus station in Montgomery and drove me to the First Baptist Church -- that was Rev. Abernathy ... a friend of Dr. King and a leader in the local movement with Dr. King. We entered the office of the church and MLK stood up from behind a desk and he said something like, "Are you the boy from Troy?" "Are you John Lewis?"

Congressman_John_Lewis: I was scared, I was nervous, I didn't, I didn't know what I was going to say. And I said -- Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis. I gave my whole name, I didn't want there to be any mistake.

Congressman_John_Lewis: That was the beginning of our relationship. We became friends. We became brothers in a struggle. He was my leader. He was my hero.

DC_Vyf asks: Why did you decide to run for congress?

Congressman_John_Lewis: When I would make trips to DC during the height of the Civil Rights Movement ... I had a chance to meet many members of Congress and I had been involved in getting people to register (to vote) and I thought somehow and someway I could make a contribution by being involved in politics.

Congressman_John_Lewis: I had an opportunity to meet President Kennedy, he invited me to the White House. I got to meet Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey and I thought that was the way to go.

npr_host: When did you first run for office?

Congressman_John_Lewis: In 1977 I ran and I came in 2nd in a field of 12 and I lost the run off. And that was to fill Andrew Young's seat. So I lost that race, but I didn't give up. I went to Washington and worked in the Carter administration for 3 years. Came back to Atlanta and ran for city-wide City Council seat in '81 ... and got elected. I ran again in '85 and got more than 85% of the vote and in '86 I ran for Congress. And, I've been re-elected six times.

npr_host: Will you run again?

Congressman_John_Lewis: I plan to. I'm not prepared to give it up.

DC_Vyf asks: How does one keep struggling for social change in this environment? How does one keep their spirits up?

Congressman_John_Lewis: You must never, ever give up. Let me give you an example. I just finished a book called Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement; it's published by Simon and Schuster. In the prologue of the book, I tell a story about when I was growing up and I was only about 7 or 8 years old, but I remember like it was yesterday.

Congressman_John_Lewis: One Saturday afternoon a group of my sisters and brothers, along with some of my first cousins about 12 or 15 of us -- young children were outside playing in the yard, and a storm came up ... an unbelievable storm occurred and the only adult around was my aunt who lived in this old house. A shotgun house -- a house with a tin roof, small ... The wind started blowing, the lightening started flashing and we were all in the house. My aunt was terrified, she thought the house would blow away. So she suggested we should hold hands and we were crying all of us.

Congressman_John_Lewis: So when one side of the house appeared to be lifted from its foundation we'd try and hold it down with our little bodies ... and when the other corner of the house appeared to be lifting up we'd walk over there ... trying to hold it down. Thunder may roll, lightninging may flash ... but we may never leave the house.

Congressman_John_Lewis: During the past 35 or 40 years -- all of us have been walking from Selma, Montgomery, Washington ... holding hands and at the same time trying to hold the house together. So in 1999 we must build one house, the American house, the American family. So we don't get lost in the sea of despair. I'm not afraid. You come to the point ... and even during the height of the Civil Rights Movement,

johnm_joebloggs_cooldude56 asks: are you afraid of the KKK??? (seriously... i'm not trying to be smart.)

Congressman_John_Lewis: After I got arrest and jailed for the first time, you lose that sense of fear and you become free and you become liberated.

Karq asks: How do you think MLK would fare in today's political arena?

Congressman_John_Lewis: Today, MLK would be the undisputed moral leader in America. If he were here today ... he'd say we're majoring in minor things. He'd be very disappointed that we're wasting so much of our time, so much of our energy and resources on investigation rather then dealing with the basic needs of people.

Lovely_Ca_97 asks: If there is any advice you could give to our generation what would it be?

Congressman_John_Lewis: This generation should study contemporary history read the books, listen to the tapes, watch the video study the early days of the Civil Rights Movement and be inspired. They too can act.

filippomiller asks: Your advice on how ordinary citizens can make the difference in making the society more equal?

Congressman_John_Lewis: They too can bring about a non-violent community. Ordinary citizens, coming together in an organized fashion, using the philosophy of non-violence can bring about change. The vote is still the more powerful non-violent tool we have. And, in American fewer and fewer Americans are exercising that right. I don't think what is happening in Washington is a reflection of how people voted.

npr_host: Do you feel, Congressman, that the current impeachment trial is accepting the people's word, and how the people voted?

Congressman_John_Lewis: It's not just a lack of sensitivity, it's just doing something different than what the people said on Nov. 3. I'll tell a story -- so may be, people need to send another message. And a stronger message.

Congressman_John_Lewis: When I was growing up I used to raise chickens ... and I wanted to be a minister. So I would round up the chickens and sometimes I would preach to them and sometimes they would shake their heads ... and none said amen. But I believe that some of these chickens listened to me more than my colleagues in Congress.

Congressman_John_Lewis: Too many elected officials at the national level are out of step with the American people. My greatest fear is when the American people will stand up and say we've had enough. And the leadership will have to say, there goes my people; let me catch up with them.

npr_host: What do you think the elected representatives in the Senate are going to do?

Congressman_John_Lewis: I believe after a few more days of deliberation they will conclude that what the President did does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense and they will dismiss the case against him.

npr_host: As you know NPR is presenting a tribute to Dr. King in Music. How does that help the cause ... cultural events recognizing his legacy?

Congressman_John_Lewis: I think the arts reflect society. The arts reflect and mirror the larger society. There is so much power in the field in drama there's power in the words of a song in a tune.

Congressman_John_Lewis: Without music and song, the non-violent movement would be like a bird without wings. We didn't know what would happen and someone would just start singing ... and the music had a way of disarming people and it had the power to say to the opposition we were speaking another language they couldn't deal with and there's nothing more powerful than hundreds of voices in a paddy wagon singing a song.

npr_host: Any other questions from our audience? Please send in your last questions.

npr_host: "We Shall Overcome" was an anthem during the Civil Rights Movement...

Congressman_John_Lewis: "We Shall Overcome" -- during those years people were singing the song until they would cry... and walk hand in hand... we will be free, black and white together, God on our side.

Congressman_John_Lewis: It was powerful. You were marching to police storms, you were marching to tear gas, beat us, jail us, leave us half dead, but We Shall Overcome.

npr_host: Tomorrow night there is a world premiere of a new arrangement ... what do you think of that?

Congressman_John_Lewis: I'm going to listen well ... it will be the same song, but to a different beat, but the song is so powerful maybe a little more contemporary ... people sing the song all over the world. In many different languages, but the essence and meaning is the same a song of hope and a song of faith.

krockett_2065101 asks: Mr. Congressman when I graduate I would like to get into politics. Any advice on what subject in politics I should take?

Congressman_John_Lewis: Get involved in local- political organizations. Get involved with local candidates ... give it all you have, be honest, be faithful to the calling, being an official is a noble calling.

sir_davem asks: Congressman, did you sense that you were a part of history?

Congressman_John_Lewis: I believed in something ... I discuss it in my book. I feel myself as a participant in a struggle ... I never saw myself as a leader, I saw myself as one participant ... but something caught up with me and got me involved and I call it the spirit of history. So I guess you could say I was part of history ... Because I was beaten and dragged, it helped get the Voting Rights Act.

johnnybuffett asks: Congressman Lewis, Do you think that struggle is leading nowhere?

Congressman_John_Lewis: We make so much progress, we make so much progress in America. The struggle is going away. Come and walk in my shoes.

Congressman_John_Lewis: We are on our way toward laying down the burden of race in America. There won't be any turning back. We cannot go back. We are destine to build a beloved community to build a truly interracial democracy in America. When you think about it ... we all came to this country our forefathers and foremothers in different ships but we're all in the same boat. We don't have any choice in America but to create one nation, one America, one House.

npr_host: Well we have been honored to have you join us tonight. And your stories and advice are a real inspiration to all participating. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Congressman_John_Lewis: It's been my pleasure. Good night.

npr_host: Good night, thanks.

npr_host: We appreciate the good questions. Thanks for joining us; some of you may be interested in hearing NPR's special "A King Celebration" broadcast from Atlanta tomorrow and on Monday, January 18th. Visit www.npr.org for more details.