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'A Conversation with John Lewis'

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

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."

Obama's Promise

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."