John Lewis To Get Presidential Medal Of Freedom The Georgia congressman, a key foot soldier of the civil rights movement, will be honored with the nation's highest civilian honor Tuesday. Lewis says it's especially poignant because it comes from the nation's first African-American president: "It's hard to believe that in a short time that we have come so far as a nation and as a people."
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John Lewis To Get Presidential Medal Of Freedom

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John Lewis To Get Presidential Medal Of Freedom

John Lewis To Get Presidential Medal Of Freedom

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

NPR's Kathy Lohr spoke with Lewis.

KATHY LOHR: John Lewis says President Obama called him personally to let him know he's being given the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

JOHN LEWIS: I was just moved. I was just touched. I feel more than lucky, but very blessed.

LOHR: Lewis says, as the president talked about the congressman's lifelong struggle for civil rights, it brought tears to his eyes to realize the kind of societal changes he has witnessed.

LEWIS: It's hard to believe that in a short time, that we have come so far as a nation and as a people. When you look back, the year that Barack Obama was born 50 years ago, black people and white people in the American South couldn't sit together on a bus, or on a train, or in a waiting room. And we changed that.

LOHR: (Soundbite of historical footage, March on Washington):

LEWIS: As it stands now, the voting section of this bill will not help the thousands of black people who want to vote. It will not help the citizens of Mississippi, of Alabama and Georgia who are qualified to vote but lack a sixth- grade education. One man-one vote is the African cry. It is ours, too. It must be ours.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

LOHR: One of Lewis' few political controversies came in 2007. Ironically, it was over then-Senator Barack Obama. As Mr. Obama campaigned for the party's presidential nomination, Lewis endorsed Hillary Clinton. Lewis had a longstanding relationship with both Bill and Hillary Clinton. He called it a close friendship. But by early 2008, the congressman was under pressure to back Mr. Obama, and citing the will of the district, Lewis switched his endorsement.

LEWIS: This man, this senator, Barack Obama, somehow in some way, he's been able to emerge to carry the hopes and dreams and aspirations of millions of people.

LOHR: But the decision weighed heavily on Lewis.

LEWIS: This has been hard. This has been difficult, but there come a time when you have to make a decision.

LOHR: In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, the congressman watched the results from his district headquarters in Atlanta.

LEWIS: It doesn't matter whether we are black or white, or Latino or Asian-American, or Native American, Barack Obama is saying to America: We are one people.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

LOHR: Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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