University of Mississippi
By Clancy Smith
Sunlight filters through tall leafy oak trees in the center of the Ole Miss campus as graduates and parents wait restlessly for law school commencement. On a shaded wooden platform, Georgia Congressman John Lewis, the featured speaker, is flanked by two flags.
On his right waves the American flag, on his left the Mississippi flag with the age-old symbol of the Confederacy in its upper right hand corner. Lewis doesn’t give it a glance.
He could speak about the troubled history of this most southern of southern schools, how in 1962 a bloody riot accompanied the enrollment of its first black student, James Meredith. He could speak of how, just a few weeks ago, some students placed a hangman’s noose around the neck of the statue of Meredith on the same campus. He could speak of how he was once beaten nearly to death for the cause of civil rights.
Instead, he preaches a sermon of hope, a sermon of love.
“If someone had told me when I first came to Mississippi on the Freedom Ride that I would be standing here today, I would have said you are crazy, you’re out of your mind, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says.
But today, at 74, he says he loves Mississippi. “When people tell me nothing has changed in Mississippi, I say walk in my shoes! This is a different state. We are a better people. … It doesn’t matter if we are black or white. We are one people and one family. We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters and live in peace.”
When he is done, the overwhelmingly white audience gives him a standing ovation, a stark contrast to what he experienced when he visited the state for the first time in 1961. At that time no one would listen to him at all.
* * *
Even now, almost 50 years later, it is hard to watch the film. John Lewis leads a band of unarmed protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Suddenly, state troopers attack with billy clubs. Deputies on horseback charge the marchers. A defenseless John Lewis is clubbed to the ground from behind. The blows crack his skull, rendering him unconscious.
The images of that attack helped prod Congress into passing the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965, which changed the face of the South by making it easier for black people to vote.
For Lewis, Selma was just another day at the office. During the 1960s, he absorbed hate and violence like few ever have. He was hit over the head with a Coca-Cola crate, pummelled with the fists of angry white men, jailed 40 times, all for daring to challenge segregation.
Through it all, he never abandoned his vow of non-violence, never stopped believing that one day race would no longer be an issue in this nation so long divided by the color of a man’s skin.
Today, the young preacher boy who couldn’t get a public library card or drink from the “Whites Only” water fountain is the Democrats’ deputy whip in the U.S. House of Representatives, a senior statesman of civil rights whose gentle spirit is legend.
* * *
As a young boy growing up in the country outside of Troy, Ala., John Lewis was acutely aware that black and white were treated differently. He didn’t like the overcrowded classrooms, hand-me-down books or raggedy school bus that drove him and his friends past the newly renovated school for white children.
“I kept asking questions. Why? Why? ” Lewis said. “And my mother and father and grandparents would say, ‘That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.’ ”
In 1957, at 17, Lewis applied to all-white Troy State University without telling his family. The college never responded. Instead of giving up, Lewis wrote a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I told him I needed his help. He wrote me back and sent me a round-trip Greyhound bus ticket,” said Lewis. “He invited me to come to Montgomery to meet with him.”
Meanwhile, Lewis’s mother, who worked in the laundry room at a Southern Baptist orphanage, learned about the American Baptist Theological Seminary for black students in Nashville. In September of 1957, Lewis hopped on a Greyhound bus to Nashville to study religion and philosophy, working his way through school.
At spring break, Lewis accepted King’s invitation and traveled to meet him at the First Baptist Church of Montgomery.
“I was lost for words to say, and he said, ‘Are you the boy from Troy? Are you John Lewis?’ And I said, ‘Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis.’ I gave my whole name,” said Lewis. “And that was the beginning.”
Lewis and King became fast friends.
“I loved him,” said Lewis. “He was my hero and if it hadn’t been for him, I don’t know what would have happened to me. He gave me a way out.”
King offered to help Lewis file suit to get into Troy State. He urged Lewis to talk with his parents before making a decision.
“I went back and my mother and father were so frightened,” said Lewis. “They didn’t want to have anything to do with my attempting to go there. They thought they would lose the land, my home would be bombed or burned.”
Lewis returned to Nashville to continue his education, working first in the kitchen, then on the food line and eventually as a janitor in the administration building. The janitorial position became particularly helpful when the student sit-in movement swept through the South.
“I was able to get a secretary in administration to do the typing,” said Lewis. “And I liberated a ream of paper and we had these do’s and don’ts: don’t laugh out, don’t talk out, don’t talk back, look straight ahead, read your book, do your homework, sit up straight and all of that.”
He graduated while imprisoned in 1961.
“I didn’t even march or participate in my graduation,” Lewis said.
Instead, he was in a maximum security cell at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, more famously known as Parchman Prison.
In the spring of 1961, he had joined the Freedom Riders who traveled on buses through the South to help desegregate interstate transportation, including bus station restrooms and cafes.
One bus was attacked and burned as the riders narrowly escaped. During a stop in Montgomery, white thugs ambushed the Freedom Riders and beat them. Dozens were injured.
“I was hit in the head with a wooden crate, a Coca-Cola crate of all things,” said Lewis. “Had to get a big patch on my head.”
When the riders got to Jackson, they were shipped off for a 44-day stay at Parchman. There, prisoners were not allowed to go outside and only showered twice a week.
“Once people were singing their freedom songs and the guards would say, ‘If you don’t stop singing your freedom song, we are going to take your mattress,’ ” said Lewis. “So people started improvising and making up songs so they couldn’t take our mattress.”
* * *
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy invited a small group of civil rights leaders to the White House. Lewis, who only days before had been named chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was the youngest of the group that included Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Phillip Randolph, among others.
They told Kennedy they planned a peaceful march on Washington. On August 28, 1963, that dream became a reality.
What leaders expected to be 60,000 to 70,000 participants turned into 250,000. The dramatic scene is credited with helping pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“We were coming down Constitution Avenue, and we saw hundreds and thousands of people coming out of Union Station, so we knew then it was going to be many more people,” said Lewis. “It was very moving, just gratifying.”
Lewis, the youngest of six speakers at the March on Washington, was 23 the day he stepped up to the podium between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
“I looked to my right. I saw all these young people, black and white, standing there cheering me on, and then I looked straight ahead and I saw all those young people, men, women,” said Lewis. “I’ll never see a sight like that again.”
In 1964, what would later be called “Freedom Summer,” thousands of students from the north came south to help register black voters. As chairman of SNCC, Lewis recruited people to travel to Mississippi.
“Back in 1964, the state had a very large African-American population, but only a few people were registered to vote,” said Lewis. “We wanted to change that.”
Few people registered that summer, but the group made progress in organizing and energizing young blacks.
They were also met with violence. Three civil rights workers, James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, went missing that summer near Philadelphia, Miss. Murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, their bodies were discovered six weeks later.
“That was a very sad and difficult time,” said Lewis.
But the seeds of political activism had been planted.
“I think in Mississippi, during the summer in those early years, the African-American community in the state became probably the most politically involved and aware than any African-American community or any other southern state,” Lewis said.
Though progress remained slow, Lewis said Freedom Summer had an impact not only on Mississippi, but on the entire nation.
“What happened that summer and years following, it helped educate and sensitize and motivate people all across America,” he said.
* * *
A year later, a peaceful march in protest of the killing of a young man shot by a state trooper stands out as one of Lewis’ most frightening experiences.
SNCC began its protest walk from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. Lewis came prepared. He assumed the group would be arrested so he wore a backpack with two books to read, an apple and an orange to eat and toothpaste and a toothbrush to brush his teeth.
When they paused to pray after being ordered to disperse, state troopers and deputies advanced, hitting people with nightsticks and bullwhips, trampling them with horses and releasing tear gas.
“I thought I was going to die,” said Lewis, who suffered a concussion. “I thought I saw death, but somehow I survived.”
Amidst the beatings, hatred and imprisonment, Lewis never considered giving up. Fear never hindered him.
“For a lot of people, fear is natural for them,” he said. “But you come to that point, you lose that sense of fear and you find something that you believe in that is so right and so necessary that you’re prepared to stand up for it, fight for it and, if necessary, die for it.”
* * *
Through his many trips to Washington, D.C., and conversations with elected officials, Lewis got interested in politics as a way to change things. When Robert Kennedy announced that he was running for president, Lewis offered to help.
Soon he found himself organizing voter registration efforts for the RFK campaign in Indianapolis. It was there, on April 4, 1968, that he heard of King’s assassination.
“I was stunned and saddened, and I cried like the great majority of the people,” said Lewis. “I went back to Atlanta and helped prepare for the services, and sort of dropped out of the campaign for a week or so. Then I got back on the campaign trail.”
Lewis worked hard, knocking on doors to help Kennedy win the Democratic primary in California. On election night, after the victory, Kennedy invited Lewis and a few others to his hotel suite to celebrate. Kennedy joked lightheartedly with his visitors and invited them to stay while he went down to give his victory speech.
“So we watched his speech on television that evening, and later when this bulletin came on that he had been shot we all just dropped to the floor and cried, and I just wanted to get out of L. A.,” said Lewis. “I just wanted to make it back to Georgia.”
Disheartened by the passing of two dear friends, Lewis made a promise to himself to continue the work of those leaders whom he so greatly admired.
“I said to myself then if I could do something to pick up where Robert Kennedy and Dr. King and others left off, I would do it,” said Lewis.
After losing a first race Congress, Lewis went to work for President Jimmy Carter in Washington, D.C. He returned to Atlanta after three years and got elected to the city council.
A U.S. House seat in Atlanta came open again in 1986 when incumbent Rep. Andrew Young resigned to become Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations. Lewis ran again. This time, he was elected.
“And I haven’t had a tough race since,” he said. “This year, not anyone is running against me.”
Lewis is a member of the Ways and Means committee, dealing with issues related to taxes, revenue, Social Security and Medicare. He is also heavily involved in the fight for comprehensive immigration reform.
In fact, his most recent arrest in October 2013 centered on a protest against lack of immigration reform. It marked the fortieth time Lewis has been arrested while standing up for what he believes is right.
“It’s a form of speech almost,” said Lewis. “As Dr. King would say, you have a right to protest for what is right. You have a right to petition the government. So it’s a different way, a different means of petitioning your government, to make your concern known, to help to dramatize the issue.”
After the U.S. Supreme Court effectively knocked down the Voting Rights Act, Lewis began pushing a new voting rights law to restore some of the protections the court eliminated. He wants to make voting less complicated and more accessible so everyone can participate.
“My own feeling is that the national election, the general election, should be a holiday,” Lewis. “If voting is so important to our democratic society, just make it a national holiday and let everybody vote.”
Lewis credits his faith for helping him handle the challenges thrown his way.
“Without my faith, I’m not so sure I would have survived,” he said. “It’s that belief … , that sense of hope, that sense of optimism, that sense that you can overcome, and it’s also that sense of you have to work and believe that what you’re working toward, in a sense, it’s already done.”
Though harboring resentment would be easy, Lewis has never succumbed to anger.
“I tell young children all the time ‘never hate,’ ” said Lewis. “Dr. King would say ‘hate is too heavy a burden to bear.’ You destroy yourself. The best thing to do is be hopeful, be optimistic, and continue to work.”
He knows there is work still to be done, but the change he has already seen leaves him encouraged.
“I see the changes that have occurred in the state, and it gives me so much hope,” said Lewis. “The state of Mississippi has the highest number of black elected officials in any state. I meet people, young people, people not so young, all over the country who say, ‘I’m from Mississippi, I grew up in Mississippi, I followed you.’ “