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'A Conversation with John Lewis'

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

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."