Congressman John Lewis 'Chats' with D.C. Community

Dorothy Rowley | 4/20/2012, 10:58 a.m.

Congressman John Robert Lewis regaled an appreciative crowd Thursday evening with stories about his life as a civil rights stalwart, a Georgia farm boy and his enduring vision of an America where "people live with a sense of community, peace, and grace [and where] they aren't afraid of each other and have no hate."

It's been nearly a lifetime since Lewis picked cotton in Troy, Ala., walked alongside Dr. Martin Luther Jr. during protests in the Deep South or campaigned for Sen. Robert Kennedy in his bid for the Democratic nomination and the presidency of the United States.

It's been an even shorter period since the 72-year-old civil rights icon and Georgia congressman was granted a library card in his hometown, or met face-to-face with one of the unabashed racists who apologized for beating him during a 1961 attack at a Greyhound bus terminal, or since he witnessed the first black person elected president of the United States.

But through it all, Lewis - the third of 10 children born to sharecropper parents - who went from aspiring Baptist minister to landing in jail countless times in his fight for freedom, and who gained distinction as a widely-respected leader on Capitol Hill - has kept it all in perspective.

"In 1959 we were ready. I was prepared, ready to die," said Lewis, of his involvement in the decades-long struggle for freedom and equality alongside King. "I was jailed 40 times and when it happened the first time, I felt liberated, free. I was told over and over by my parents and grandparents to stay out of trouble, but this was good trouble, necessary trouble."

That's what Lewis, a protege of King's told the packed house Thursday night at THEARC Theater in Southeast. The event marked The Washington Informer's highly-anticipated presentation of "A Conversation with Civil Rights Icon John Lewis."

At the conclusion of the night's activities, the elder statesman became the first recipient of the award-winning newspaper's annual humanitarian award.

He was engaging, self-deprecating and the possessor of a finely honed sense of humor.

When asked, Lewis said that he felt a personal responsibility to carry on the legacy and mission of recently assassinated friends.

"I had a great feeling that someone needed to pick up where these young men left off. With the assassinations of King and the Kennedys, something died in America, died in all of us."

During the candid hour-and-half conversation with Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes, Lewis imparted a serious story leavened with humor and emotion. Among them, his remembrance of a young boy raising chickens while thirsting for an education and his insistence that even in this day and age, America still has a long way to go toward eradicating racism.

"I don't buy the feeling that we live in a post-racial America," he said. "The scars and stains of racism are still deeply embedded in American society. We need to talk about race. We cannot sweep it under the rug or push it in a corner. In the African-American community, and in the majority community we are afraid to talk about it, bring it out."

Lewis also talked about the fulfillment of King's dream. He responded with an emphatic "No," when asked if the King's dream had been attained.

"The election of President Obama has not fulfilled the dream," said Lewis. "It's just a down payment."

Then, when queried on his take about the Trayvon Martin case, Lewis responded that the unfortunate incident was one more example of there being easy access to "too many guns."

"I was saddened and troubled [by the shooting], and it reminded me of what happened to Emmett Till on August 28, 1955. It is my hope and prayer that justice will be done."

On a brighter note, Lewis who admitted crying over Robert Kennedy's assassination, Obama's election and the 2011 groundbreaking of the MLK Memorial, said however, that the best thing about the granite honorarium is that "it sits on the front porch of America."

WI Staff Writer Barrington M. Salmon contributed to this article.