John Lewis’ Courageous Life

American Icons, People
on July 18, 2004

U.S. Rep. John Lewis still remembers the advice his family gave him when he was a shy schoolboy in a segregated Pike County, Ala., about 10 miles from Troy (pop. 13,935). The sharecropper’s son ignored the guidance then, and five decades later, he’s still ignoring it.

“When I was growing up, my mother, my father, my grandparents and great-grandparents always told us, ‘Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble,’” says Lewis, 64. But Lewis has spent his entire adult life getting into trouble, and America is a better place because of his endless pursuit of equality for all citizens.

In Troy, a young Lewis could purchase a hand-mixed cola drink at Byrd’s Drugs, but he had to take it outside to drink it. The Georgia congressman painfully recalls the memories of “colored” bathrooms and water fountains and the “whites-only” public library that denied his request for a library card. “As a child, I knew something was wrong and I had an obligation to do something about it,” he says.

As a college student in Nashville, Tenn., he organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. Lewis, who was arrested 40 times for his acts of civil disobedience, offered his body as an instrument of change and was beaten so many times that he can’t remember all of his injuries. By 1963, Lewis—then 23 and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—was considered one of the “Big Six” leaders of the movement, along with Martin Luther King Jr. and James Farmer, and met with Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. That summer, he delivered a passionate address to hundreds of thousands at the March on Washington, just before King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Lewis is perhaps best known for joining with fellow civil rights leader Hosea Williams in leading more than 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965 to protest racial discrimination in voter registration. The march, known as “Bloody Sunday,” was instrumental in bringing about passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ended discriminatory practices, such as literacy tests and poll taxes, designed to deny voting rights to blacks.

“I got in the way,” says Lewis in his usual understated way. “I got in trouble; it was good trouble. Here in Congress from time to time, I get in trouble, but it’s necessary trouble.”

Political conscience

Elected in 1986 to represent Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, which includes Atlanta and parts of Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton and Cobb counties, the Democrat remains just as passionate today in his lifelong quest for improving the lives of the less fortunate. Time magazine has described him as a saint among men, and many of his colleagues consider Lewis to be their personal hero. Dubbed the “political conscience” of his party, he’s clung to his principles, even when it’s meant voting against the Democratic agenda.

“I’ve seen courage in action on many occasions,” writes Arizona Sen. John McCain in his book, Why Courage Matters. “I can’t say I’ve seen anyone possess more of it, and use it for any better purpose and to any greater effect, than John Lewis.”

Lewis’ life today is much different than it was when he first began making headlines. The national leader shuttles between Atlanta, where his wife, Lillian, and son, John Miles, 28, live, and his home near the Capitol in Washington, D.C. He’s now one of the senior faces of national politics, serving as a mentor to young enthusiastic leaders who are determined to leave their own mark on society. Although his suits may be nicer, his hair grayer and his wall lined with numerous awards, including the John F. Kennedy Profile In Courage Award, his message remains the same as it was in the 1960s.

“I almost feel a calling to spread the good news to inspire people, to tell people they can do it, especially young people,” he says. “And to those not so young, that they shouldn’t get lost in a sea of despair, that they shouldn’t give up or in or out.

“I speak a great deal about getting in the way,” he says. “You cannot be passive; you cannot be just an observer. You have to be a participant. You have to find a way to get in the way.”

For instance, Lewis introduced the Civil Rights Act of 2004 on the floor of Congress in February. It’s designed to restore civil rights protection to workers that had been guaranteed in Civil Rights legislation in 1964 and 1991, but altered by federal and state court decisions. “The struggle for civil rights is beyond one bill, one vote or one judicial decision,” he says. “It’s beyond one presidential term or act of Congress . . . Each generation, each citizen, each president and each member of Congress must do his or her part.”

A lifetime’s struggle

When Lewis was elected to Congress, he was armed with the experiences from the nonviolence movement, and especially with what he learned from his mentors, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. James Lawson. “The teaching and training I received has been very, very useful and helpful: that you don’t win every battle, that you don’t try to fight every battle and that you pace yourself for the long haul,” he says. “In the movement, we used to say, ‘The struggle is not one that lasts one day or one week or one month or one school year. It’s the struggle of the lifetime.’ So here in Congress, I’ve tried to take the long, hard look.”

But with experience has also come patience. “In 1963 to ’65, we had a sense of urgency,” he says. “In my March on Washington speech, I said something like, ‘We want our freedom and we want it now. So you tell us to wait, you tell us to be patient. We cannot wait, we cannot be patient.’ Since being here, I know and realize that the legislative process is much longer.”

In 1988, Lewis introduced legislation to create a National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. He’s worked tirelessly on his dream for the last 15 years, introducing legislation annually in every congressional session until it was passed in 2003. “It took a long time to do it, but I didn’t give up; we didn’t throw in the towel,” he says. “Last year, the Congress passed it, the president signed it and now people are working to make it happen.”

Lewis remains dedicated to achieving his idea of “the Beloved Community,” a society free of conflict, division and polarization. “It is the beginning of the state of mind where people no longer put people down, hate people or despise people because of the color of their skin or their race or sexual orientation,” he says. “We still have a distance to go, but we are not where we were. We have come a distance.”

Lewis is finding “pockets” of the Beloved Community that he envisions, including an elementary school he recently visited in Atlanta. “In this school, the children speak 52 different languages,” he says. “I said, ‘If Dr. King could come back and visit you, he would be very, very proud,’” Lewis says. “These little kids just applauded because they know they represent something so different that is so good and so basic. When I was coming back on the plane, I thought, ‘I wish the whole of America could see that picture of these kids, all sitting there on the floor, asking all types of questions.’

“These kids are going to emerge so differently. If the whole of America could be like this school, we would be so much better off as a nation.”