A Conversation with John Lewis: Part 2

Barrington M. Salmon | 4/25/2012, 1:26 p.m.

Georgia Congressman John Lewis told a packed house during an April 19 event sponsored by The Washington Informer, that 50 years ago, blacks couldn't vote.

"We had to count the number of jelly beans in a jar," Lewis, 72, told the diverse crowd that gathered at THEARC in Southwest Washington, D.C. "... People had to pay poll taxes and interpret sections of the Alabama Constitution. So many institutions participated in this vicious, evil system. I saw it growing up."

As the enlightening chit-chat, "A Conversation with John Lewis," with Washington Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes continued, 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.