'A Conversation with John Lewis'

Barrington M. Salmon | 4/25/2012, 10:42 a.m.

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.