John Lewis

Robert Scheer, a contributing editor to The Times, is a columnist for the Op-Ed page

Recorded history is cruel in its indifference to the struggles of ordinary folks, and the unassuming heroes are the first to be forgotten. On a recent visit to the Westside office of The Times, not a one among the dozen young reporters working at their computers could place the gentle but solidly built middle-aged black man who had shown up for this interview. Although he has been a U.S. congressman representing Atlanta for the past 10 years, married and with a college-age, John Lewis, 58, an effective legislator, does not work at grabbing the national spotlight.

But during the turbulent days of the 1960s civil-rights struggle, his image, bloodied, skull-fractured, crumpled, pounded to the ground by goons wearing state trooper badges in Selma, Ala., as he attempted to lead a peaceful march, made him a worldwide symbol of resistance.

The unofficial designation of “saint” came to be used by many who observed him in action. He was fearless without the slightest trace of bravado, committed to the struggle without ever being divisive and though he emerged as the most impressive of the young people who rallied to the call of Martin Luther King Jr., he remains to this day, as in the pages of his new book, totally self-effacing.

In 1966, Lewis was ousted as head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee by the more militant Stokely Carmichael and his fellow advocates of Black Power. But this sharecroppers’ son from the deeply segregated rural South dared with unflinching equanimity to assert the goal of racial integration and the necessity of nonviolence as the only fit means toward that end.


While the idealistic student movement he loved and led disintegrated into factionalism, Lewis spent the next decade leading an organizing effort that registered 4 million new voters in the South, many of them blacks voting for the first time. His primary emphasis, as was King’s, was on enfranchising the poor of all races. His new memoir, “Walking with the Wind,” is a tale of continuing commitment, personal and heroic, to make the promise of American democracy a reality. But more than that, it is a testament to the beauty as well as the necessity of the goal of integration, economic as well as social. Here is a man who refuses to accept distinctions of color or class, who will not let go of the ideal of an all-inclusive “Beloved Community,” and who refuses to let hate win out.


Question: What’s the main reason for writing this memoir 30 years after the stormy struggle to end racial segregation?

Answer: I wanted to give a source of inspiration to young people and those not so young who maybe don’t remember the struggles of the civil-rights movement. And hopefully, it would inspire people to act again, to move. I don’t like what I see happening in America. I want people to know that during another period, we did have people working together across racial lines, blacks and whites, putting their bodies on the line. A lot people think the civil-rights movement was just a black movement, but a lot of white people came South. The Jewish community played a major role in helping. Countless blacks and whites sacrificed. I think in America we’re losing that sense of caring, that sense of sharing, that sense that we’re in this thing together. If we lose that, we don’t have much left as a nation.


Q: What was the racial reality of Troy, Ala., when you were in school?

A: It was a one-room schoolhouse. First through the sixth grade, with a big pot-belly stove in the center of the room to heat the place. We didn’t have indoor plumbing. Didn’t have running water. As far back as I can remember, I saw the signs that said, “White men,” “Colored men,” “White women,” “Colored women.” In the five-and-ten-cent store, there was a little fountain saying, “White,” “Colored.” The drug store, we could get a Coca-Cola syrup and water, and we would have to come out on the street to drink it. We couldn’t sit at the lunch counter. I would go downtown to the little theater with my brothers and sisters and we would pay our money. Then we would have to come out of the theater and go up on the outside to the balcony. And all the young white kids went downstairs to the first floor. So, as a young child, I tasted the bitter fruits of racism. And I didn’t like it.

Q: When was your first sense of the civil-rights movement?

A: When I first heard of Dr. King. I was 15, in the 10th grade. Before then, I tried to go and check a book out of the county library. And I was told that colored people couldn’t use the library. I was about 10, maybe 11 or 12. But I went back there recently for a book signing and they gave me a library card. I’m gonna frame it. And the black and white citizens of this little town all showed up.


Q: When you were 10, was there another library for “colored” people?

A: No. And the lone white library was supported by all of us taxpayers.

Q: What did you think, that was just the order of things?

A: I talked to my mother and father about it, and they said that’s the way it is. What can we do about it? I organized a petition drive with students. We sent a letter to the library. We never heard anything. And then I got an application for membership in the youth branch of the NAACP, and I mailed it away. But what convinced me more than anything else was when I heard Dr. King speak in 1955, on the radio. I knew that he was speaking to me. And he was speaking for me and for others. Martin Luther King Jr., more than any other person, said that you can change things. You can make things happen.


Q: When you sit now in Congress and you’ve got Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich and these Southern white congressmen who talk about the racial equality struggles being over, what goes through your mind?

A: These guys don’t know what they’re talking about. I feel like saying to them, come and walk in my shoes. Whether it’s in Alabama or in Georgia or Mississippi, there’s still too many people that are left out--left behind. We made a tremendous amount of progress. But the scars and stains of racism are still deeply embedded in American society. Sometimes I feel like I’m sort of re-living my life over again.

Q: In what sense?

A: That you thought you’d made more progress. Then you see a group in Congress championing legislation to abolish affirmative action in higher education. A group of us, Democrats and moderate Republicans, came together and defeated it. But Speaker Gingrich was on the other side.


Q: What do you say to their argument, which is that we already did all that?

A: They say we must move to a color-blind society in America, but we’re not there yet. We have not yet laid down the burden of race in America. And we still need tools and instruments like affirmative action.

Q: Do you get frustrated having to keep fighting these battles?

A: I made up my mind a long time ago that I wouldn’t become bitter, hostile. I was in Dallas speaking to a group of young people about the book, and I said to them, “Don’t become bitter or hostile. Whatever you do, don’t give up, don’t give in, don’t give out.” One politician said, ‘You tell us to have hope. What is there to hope for?” And I said, ‘What’s the alternative? If you give up the hope, it’s like being dead.”


A central element of the Movement is the possibility that things can change, you have to make change, you have to have faith. And the problem in America today is that people are too quiet. They’re too darn patient. They need to make some noise. They need to agitate a little, especially young people.

Q: The only person who seems able to mobilize large numbers of black voters is Jesse Jackson. What’s your sense of it?

A: Well, he’s a very charismatic figure on the American scene. And you may need a Jesse Jackson to energize the African American vote. Right now, he’s onto this whole question of class--which I agree with. That’s what Dr. King was trying to do when he was assassinated. That’s what Bobby Kennedy was all about. These two young leaders back in 1968 were moving down the same road. Kennedy, who was able to get the black vote, get the white vote, who could go to Appalachia, who could go to the heart of the ghetto, go down to the Mississippi Delta and inspire people. Martin Luther King Jr. was pulling people together in Atlanta for the Poor People’s Campaign. He had poor white people, he had Hispanics, he had blacks. And if the two of them would have lived, we’d probably live in a different country.

Q: I was there the night Bobby Kennedy was shot. And my memory is you were sitting on the hotel room floor, crying.


A: Yeah. On the fifth floor of the Ambassador. I was crying. When Dr. King was assassinated, I said to myself that I’m not going to become bitter and hostile, not going to go crazy or get lost in a sea of despair. I said to myself, well, we still have Bobby Kennedy.

Q: So you made this decision you weren’t going to get bitter after King, and now Bobby Kennedy’s been killed. What were your thoughts?

A: I wanted to get out of L.A. I left the next morning, and I think I cried, off and on, all the way from Los Angeles to Atlanta. Then I got the call from some representative of the Kennedy family saying, “Come to New York and stand as an honor guard.” And I stood on the evening before the funeral with Rev. Ralph Abernathy. One statement Bobby made in ’68 that is relevant today is that there must be a revolution, not a revolution in the streets, the one in our hearts, our minds and our souls.

Q: Now we have President Clinton. Do you feel he’s fulfilling that promise?


A: I think he has the capacity to do it. If I could advise him, I’d tell him to get out of Washington, spend time with the American people. Inspire people. Get out and motivate people. That’s what is needed now. You need a vision for the country.

Q: While you’ve been in Congress, poverty has devolved from a federal issue to a states’ issue. Is that a betrayal of the poor?

A: That’s why I voted against the Welfare Reform Bill. I called the bill mean and vicious, not caring about children, about women, about poor people. It was a betrayal of a commitment to the most vulnerable people in our society. I don’t think the forces of what I call the spirit of history will be kind to us as a nation and as a people because of what we did. And we will pay dearly for it.

Q: The gap between affluence and poverty is not just a racial gap but within groups. There’s a substantial black upper-middle class and an emerging upper class and this great mass of poor people of all colors. You’re kind of in between--a congressman, but still the sharecroppers’ son. Do you feel estranged from more affluent blacks who may have benefited from the struggle you engaged in? Do you feel they’re paying their dues now?


A: There are a few organizations, a few individuals--there’s a group of 100 black men around the country that are trying to do certain things. There’s a few fraternities and sororities. But we’re not reaching back, helping those that have been left out and left behind. We’re not re-investing. Entertainers, sports people, they need to do more. We all need to do more.

Q: I’m thinking about the President’s problems now, and what we’ve learned about Jack Kennedy having had affairs. Similar claims were made about Rev. King. Did you know at the time?

A: I really didn’t. The Movement was my life, and the people in the Movement became my family. And I stayed focused. Sometimes when I look back on it, I feel like I never had a childhood. I grew up sitting down at a lunch counter, riding on a Greyhound Bus here and there, in jail at one period more than I was out.

Q: Were you shocked or disappointed when you later learned about King?


A: No. Because it’s very much in keeping with my religious teaching not to sit in judgment on someone else. My mother had this classy statement when the whole Lewinsky thing broke. She said, “Ya’ll should leave the president alone. Let those without sin cast the first stone.” She was quoting the Bible. The point she was trying to make is we should be willing to forgive. And what is the greatest sin--if somebody had an affair or if we condemn a whole generation to poverty and violence in our society? Congress should do something to alleviate poverty, hunger, disease, violence. The economic gap’s not narrowing, it’s widening; the health disparity between minorities and the majority population, it’s not narrowing. That’s what we should be using our time and our resources on. That’s where we’re missing the mark.

Q: Do you still believe in the goal of racial integration?

A: We’ve got to build an interracial democracy in America. And if I’m the last person preaching it, I’m gonna continue to preach it. If I’m the last person to talk about integration, I’ll be the last one to talk about it. For me, it’s one of those immutable principles, and I will not deviate from it. If I’m the only person in Congress speaking about the Beloved Community and interracial democracy or integration, I’m gonna do it. I will go to my grave believing in that possibility.