Rep. John Lewis' Fight For Civil Rights Started With A Letter To MLK As a teenager growing up in Alabama, Lewis wrote a letter to Martin Luther King Jr. during a budding civil rights movement. In a letter back, King invited the 18-year-old to join the cause.

Rep. John Lewis' Fight For Civil Rights Began With A Letter To Martin Luther King Jr.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps, and on this Friday before Martin Luther King Day, we hear from Congressman John Lewis. He's the last living speaker from the March on Washington in 1963. At StoryCorps, Congressman Lewis talked to his friend Valerie Jackson about growing up in Troy, Ala.

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JOHN LEWIS: When I was very young, I wanted to preach the gospel. I wanted to be a minister. So with the help of my brothers and sisters and cousins, we would gather all of our chickens in the chicken yard, and I would start preaching to the chickens. They never quite said amen.

VALERIE JACKSON: (Laughter).

LEWIS: When I first went off to school, I had a tie and I had a little jacket and my classmates and my teachers would call me boy preacher. And I had one teacher who'd tell me over and over again - she would say, read, my child, read. And I tried to read everything. We were too poor to have a subscription to the local newspaper, but my grandfather had one. And when he was finished reading his newspaper each day, he would pass it on to us to read. And one day, I heard about Rosa Parks and the action of Rosa Parks and the words of Dr. King inspired me. And I kept saying to myself, if something can happen like this in Montgomery, why can't we change Troy? When I finished high school, I wrote a letter to Dr. King.

JACKSON: But you had not met him by this time. You were just writing him a blind letter. OK.

LEWIS: Wrote him a blind letter. He wrote me a letter.

JACKSON: Wow.

LEWIS: He sent me a round-trip Greyhound bus ticket, invited me to come to Montgomery to meet with him. So in March of 1958 - by this time, I'm 18 years old. I boarded a Greyhound bus. I traveled the 50 miles from Troy to Montgomery and a young lawyer by the name of Fred Gray, who had been the lawyer for Rosa Parks with Dr. King, met me at the Greyhound bus station and drove me to the First Baptist Church and ushered me into the office at the church. I was so scared. I didn't know what to say or what to do. And Dr. King said, are you the boy from Troy? And I said, Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis. I gave my whole name. But he still called me the boy from Troy.

JACKSON: (Laughter).

LEWIS: We were arrested. We were jailed. We were beaten. But I guess in the end, we knew and realized that we changed things. My philosophy is very simple. When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to stand up. You have to say something. You have to do something. My mother told me over and over again when I went off to school not to get in trouble. But I told her I got in good trouble, necessary trouble.

JACKSON: Yes.

LEWIS: Even today, I tell people we need to get in good trouble.

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MARTIN: Congressman John Lewis talking with his friend, Valerie Jackson, for StoryCorps. A few weeks ago, the congressman announced he has been diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer. He will continue to serve while he undergoes treatment. This interview has been archived, along with hundreds of thousands of others, at the Library of Congress.

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