Civil Rights Icon Regales Appreciative Audience
For a man who was beaten, spat upon and jailed 40 times as a foot soldier of the Civil Rights Movement, Congressman John Robert Lewis is surprisingly free of rancor and hate.
During a 90-minute conversation with Washington Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes last week, Lewis spoke eloquently and at length about the philosophy, discipline and principles of non-violence and its importance in America's daily discourse.
"We need to teach people the way of peace, love and non-violence," said Lewis in response to a student's question late in the program about the Trayvon Martin case. "There must be a better way, a different way ... we should live, love, [live with] a sense ofcommunity, peace, grace. We shouldn't be afraid of each other and we should not hate. [Dr.] King said we should lay down the burden of hate, and that if we don't come together as brothers, we will die as fools."
Lewis, 72, was the honored guest at an event held at the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Center (THEARC) in Southeast, titled, "A Conversation with Civil Rights Icon the Honorable John Lewis."
The evening's sponsors were Industrial Bank, PEPCO, Washington Gas, Wells Fargo, Southwest Airlines, Mahogany Books and the Foundation for the Advancement of Music and Education (FAME).
Hosted by The Washington Informer, the event brought together several hundred people, for a diverse crowd that included special guests, sponsors and students. The audience was treated to a short documentary film about Lewis that detailed his early life as an Alabama farm boy; his desire to acquire an education, his admiration for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King; their association and their seminal work in the Civil Rights Movement, Lewis' ongoing activism and his role as a congressman.
"I wanted to be a preacher but civil rights became my life, the movement became my church," Lewis said. "I was less concerned with getting people to the streets paved with gold and more concerned with helping people on the streets of Nashville. Being in school, listening to my professors inspired and pushed me. We wanted to make the teaching of people real. [These were people with] pains that hurt, pains that hurt people every day. We couldn't allow people to be denied human rights. It was an affront to our dignity."
As he surveyed life for blacks in a segregated America, Lewis said he was incensed at the shabby treatment meted out to him and his family and other black Americans.
"We couldn't take a seat at a lunch counter and to see two water fountains, one for whites and the other for blacks. It scarred the minds and souls of people. We had to change that," he explained.
"I was told over and over by my parents and grandparents to stay out of trouble, but this was good trouble, necessary trouble. The bombing of the church in Birmingham broke our hearts but we redoubled our efforts to vote."
But that activism came at a price. Lewis recalled being punched and kicked, having racists grind out cigarettes in his hair, being man-handled by police during demonstrations, attacked by police dogs, and suffering a concussion after being hit in the head with batons by state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the 1965 March on Selma.
Despite all this, Lewis said, he wouldn't hesitate to do it all again. Lewis discussed the ultimate price extracted from King, Robert and John F. Kennedy.
He said he was campaigning for and traveling with Robert Kennedy who was running for the Democratic nomination to the White House in 1968.
"RFK invited a group of us to come to his sister's hotel room," Lewis said. "He said 'stay here. I'll be back in 15 minutes.' He went down to make a victory statement [after winning the California Democratic nomination]. He never came back."
And Lewis said he cried when he saw the MLK Memorial from the air. "I spoke on the day of the March – 10 of us spoke. I was sixth and King was 10th," Lewis recalled. "Of all the 10, I'm the only one still around. He [King] preached that day and turned those steps into a modern-day pulpit."
"When I was flying out of National Airport, I looked down and saw the King Memorial. I cried tears of happiness and joy knowing the distance we'd come."
The entire event last almost three hours. Before it started, attendees met, shook hands, hugged and chit-chatted in the theatre lobby while enjoying a delectable array of finger foods. After the program, they took pictures with the civil rights icon.
The evening included also included a sparkling set of three songs by the Oxon Hill High School Choir, which wowed the audience with their rendition of "In Many Mansions." Another highlight -- which came at the end of the program -- was the presentation of the first Washington Informer Humanitarian Award to Lewis.
WHUR's Taylor Thomas served as emcee, and sponsor representatives brought greetings and spoke of the importance of putting their support behind such a program. Each of the attendees received a copy of Lewis' book, "Walking in the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement."
Lewis recounted his involvement desegregating lunch counters in Nashville, Tenn., and participating in the harrowing bus rides as Freedom Riders into the South to challenge a law that relegated blacks to use separate and unequal facilities, and forced them to the back of the bus.
He still vividly recalls the mobs of white men – faces distorted with rage – attacking him and the other young college students with fists, crowbars, baseball bats, chains, anything that could inflict pain. And on the sidelines, white women with countenances knitted in raw, naked anger, spurred on their men. He spoke of the "Whites Only" and "Colored Only" signs, segregated water fountains, libraries, restrooms, restaurants and buses – all graphic reminders of the centuries-old tradition and customs that segregationists said "were in the best interest of both races."
"There was a lot of danger fighting a system that didn't want you," said Lewis. "For several weeks we were trained to accept the beatings and violence. We had the 'dos' and 'don'ts': sit up, look straight ahead, remember the teachings of King, Gandhi ...
"There were mass arrests in Nashville ... They had a profound effect on people, especially women. People turned in charging plates, what you [now] call credit cards. We just kept sitting-in and sitting-in. My first arrest was on Feb 27, 1960. I was satisfied. It felt so free, I felt so liberated. It felt like I crossed over. You arrest me. What can you do to me? Nashville became the first southern city to desegregate lunch counters [and] theatres."
Lewis said that as an 18-year-old, he wrote to Dr. Martin Luther King because he was so inspired by King's words and actions and also because he sought King's help in getting him into Troy State University. King sent him a bus ticket to join him in Montgomery, Ala., instead, and that act led to Lewis' involvement in the Civil Rights struggle, a life dedicated to seeking justice and equality for the poor and the underdog, and an unerring desire to change the racial paradigm of the United States.
"I heard that young preacher with a voice that burned with change," Lewis said. "I was inspired to write a letter to King. I was 'tracked down' to play a role. I often wonder about that. In March 1958, I boarded a Greyhound bus and met Martin Luther King. It changed my life ... freedom was a possible dream," he said.
Reaching Out to a New Generation
Following Lewis' letter writing example, a number of journalism students from the Richard Wright Public Charter School in Northeast wrote to individuals and organizations seeking their help in attacking social ills such as child hunger, bullying, gay rights for young people, and racial profiling -- as evidenced by the recent murders of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., and Kenneth Chambers, a 68-year-old former corrections officer and U.S. Marine, who was fatally shot by police in his White Plains, N.Y., home last November.
Ninth-grader Akiya Kent is one such writer: "I am writing this letter to you because I am passionate about ending world hunger and helping needy children," she wrote to Anthony Lake, executive director of UNICEF House in New York. "I really appreciate the work that has been done by your organization. I feel that UNICEF is one of the greatest organizations supporting children today and I would love to be a part of it.
"UNICEF is [more than] 50 years old, but it is still needed today because every year, 15 million children throughout the world die from hunger."
A close friend of Hillary Clinton, Lewis first endorsed her run for the White House in 2008 before formally switching to Barack Obama.
"Obama's run was in keeping with the spirit of the movement," Lewis explained. "When I heard Obama's [acceptance speech], I cried. I jumped so high I didn't think my feet would ever touch the ground."
Gloria Ravenell and her husband Jerry stood in line after the program for a free copy of Lewis' book, "Walking with the Wind."
"[The book has] a lot of background," said Gloria Ravenell, 68, who is retired but serves as outreach coordinator for the Capital Area Food Bank. "I found him to be humble, knowledgeable and a prayerful person."
Her husband agreed.
"What intrigued me most is that he is so human; he's not tainted," said Jerry Ravenell, 64, an adjunct professor of Social Sciences in Wilmington, Del. "He has been able to keep that with all his gifts and resources. He's still that humble, God-fearing person."
Despite the hard-won and often bloody gains Lewis, King, Ella Baker, C.T. Vivian, Fannie Lou Hamer, Nash and others of his generation made to advance the cause of civil rights, Lewis laments the fact that
America remains in denial about race.
"I don't buy the feeling that we live in a post-racial America," Lewis asserted. "The scars and stains are still deeply embedded in America.
We need to talk about race. We cannot sweep it under the rug, push it in a corner. In the African-American community and in the majority community, we're afraid to talk about it, bring it out," Lewis said.
"The fact is that we still have a long way to go, and a lot of work to do to achieve a multi-racial, democratic society. We had a powerful coalition [before] and we need it again."