Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

    Related Items
Nonviolent Fighter

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 9, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Rep. Lewis Lewis contemplates a civil right memorial. (Karim Shamsi-Basha/For The Post)
It's supposed to be just a quick detour, a harmless moment of nostalgia, but sometimes nostalgia has a way of sucker-punching you.

John Lewis ducks into the little basement museum in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. – Martin Luther King's old church – to point out the picture of himself in a mural depicting the history of the civil rights movement.

"There I am when I had hair," he says, smiling.

In the back of the room, a half-dozen tourists are watching a video on a big screen. King is delivering his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. The speech ends and the scene turns to the infamous "Bloody Sunday" march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965.

"That's me right there," Lewis says, softly.

On the screen, the young Lewis, the one with hair, walks at the front of a long column of black people who are marching for the right to register to vote. Lewis is wearing a white shirt and tie. His hands are deep in the pockets of his trench coat. He walks slowly toward a phalanx of Alabama state troopers who are wearing helmets and gas masks and clutching nightsticks. Lewis stops a few feet from them. The other marchers stop, too.

"This is the moment," says Lewis – the middle-aged Lewis, the one without much hair, the one who is now a congressman from Atlanta. "Watch this."

Over a bullhorn, the head trooper orders the crowd to disperse. Lewis doesn't move. He stands absolutely still and silent. The marchers behind him stand equally still. The troopers surge forward. The scrape of their boots on the pavement is the only sound on the film. One of them shoves his nightstick into Lewis's gut, pushing him backward into the line of marchers, who begin to trip over one another. The troopers start swinging their clubs. Tear gas canisters explode overhead. The marchers, most of them women, scream as they flee the clubs. Now, Lewis is lying on the ground, his skull cracked by a nightstick. He lifts his head, tries to stand up, then collapses, unconscious.

Lewis watches the video silently. By now, the tourists here know that he was a leader of the march. Somebody asks to see the scene again. While one of the museum hostesses rewinds the video, Lewis walks up to the screen. The video rolls.

"Why don't you point out where you were?" a tourist asks.

Almost inaudibly, Lewis points himself out. Again, he leads the march forward. Again, he stops. Again, the troopers start clubbing. Again, screams fill the room.

Lewis could be telling the tourists how the clubbing left him with a brain concussion, how he and 69 other marchers were hospitalized. He could explain how this scene shocked America when it was shown on TV that night, how it helped lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, how that act enfranchised millions of black Americans, resulting in the election of thousands of black officials, including Lewis. He could say all that, then add a plug for his new memoir, which he is, after all, supposed to be hyping on this trip to Alabama.

But Lewis doesn't say a word. He watches silently, and then, before the brutal scene is done, he steps to the back of the room, thanks the museum hostesses, walks outside. He looks stunned. His eyes shine as if freshly lacquered.

"That was hard, seeing it the second time," he says. "To hear the screams of the women." He looks down. "I almost lost it," he says, his voice barely a mumble. "I almost cried."

John Lewis was never much of a talker. In the movement days, he was quiet and shy, especially around TV cameras. Other civil rights leaders are famous for their words, Lewis for his wounds. Back in the '60s, when he was chairman of SNCC – the Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee – his colleagues complained that when photographers posed a group shot of civil rights leaders, with King inevitably in the center, Lewis would stand off to the side. But he was always front and center when it came time to march into an angry mob or a line of club-wielding cops. He was arrested 40 times, beaten countless others.

"John was absolutely fearless," says Bernard Lafayette, his old movement buddy.

"John is one of the most courageous men I've ever met," says Joe Smitherman, mayor of Selma, a former enemy of Lewis, now an admirer.

In 1976, when Alice Walker published "Meridian," her novel of the movement, she dedicated it to him – "for John Lewis, the unsung."

Today, 33 years after Selma, 12 years after he was first elected to Congress, Lewis, 58, is unsung no more. He's one of the heroes of "The Children," David Halberstam's best-selling history of the civil rights struggle. And now, with co-author Michael D'Orso, he has published his own book. Like the man, the book is candid, unpretentious, idealistic, full of heart and hope. The title – "Walking With the Wind" – comes from a story he tells in the prologue:

One day when he was 4, playing with his cousins in the cotton country of rural Alabama, the sky turned black and began to roar and bolts of lightning crashed down to earth. His Aunt Seneva called the children – 15 of them – into her rickety wooden house. They huddled there, trembling, as the screaming wind shook the walls and a hard rain battered the tin roof. And then the wind began to lift one corner of the old house. Aunt Seneva told the children to hold hands and walk into that corner. Terrified, they did as they were told and the corner sagged back to earth. But then the howling wind lifted another corner, so they marched into that one.

"And so it went," Lewis writes, "back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies."

It was his first walk in the whirlwind, he says, a precursor to all the marches he later made into the storms of the '60s.

Fowl Play

In Lewis's row house on Capitol Hill, there's a picture of his wife, Lillian, and a collection of African masks and several colorful prints by the great African American artist Romare Bearden. But the dominant motif is . . . chickens.

Ceramic chickens perch on nearly every flat surface. Four of them roost in a big mahogany bird cage. And on the refrigerator door, there's a magnetic plastic rooster that, when touched, emits a lusty cock-a-doodle-doo. Lewis loves chickens. His face lights up whenever he talks about them. Chickens were his first constituents, he says. Chickens shaped his character, taught him the power of compassion.

He grew up in Pike County, Ala., on a farm that his father, a former sharecropper, saved for years to buy – 110 acres for $300. The Lewis family – Eddie and Willie Mae and their 10 children – lived in a house with no plumbing and no electricity. Their water came from a well, their light from a kerosene lamp. And in the outhouse, the toilet paper was an old Sears catalogue, its pages full of ads for astonishing items they were far too poor to purchase.

They raised cotton. It was hard, hot, painful work and John Lewis detested it. But he loved taking care of the chickens. There were about 60 of them, crammed into a tiny henhouse that reeked of their manure. Lewis fed and watered them and gathered their eggs – all chicken tenders do that – but he also petted them and talked to them and read to them from the Bible and preached sermons to them. He baptized them when they were born and staged elaborate funerals when they died.

"I was truly intent on saving the little birds' souls," he writes. "I could imagine that they were my congregation. And me, I was a preacher."

"Preacher" is what his family nicknamed him. Determined to become a minister, he was an intensely serious young man, especially about education. The schools, like everything else in Alabama, were segregated. The black school was an ancient building with two rooms, a potbelly stove, no running water and books discarded by the white schools. But Lewis read everything he could find. One day, he went to the library and applied for a card. He was turned down. The library was for whites only. Outraged, he drafted a petition, gathered signatures from a few brave classmates, mailed it to the library. He never got a reply. It was his first protest.

In 1955, when he was 15, he devoured newspapers, searching for news of his hero, King, who was leading a bus boycott in Montgomery, 50 miles away. Unable to afford the tuition at King's alma mater, Morehouse College, he went instead to American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, where he worked for his keep as a dishwasher and janitor.

He arrived in the fall of 1957, a 17-year-old country boy who had never slept in a bed he didn't have to share with two or three of his brothers. Less than six years later, he would be in the White House, discussing civil rights legislation with John F. Kennedy.

'The Spirit of History'

"I really believe there is something in the universe or in the course of history that selects you or ordains you or guides you or picks you up and moves you," Lewis says, "and you have to go with the flow."

It's after 8 at night and he's sitting in his office in the Cannon Building, at a table piled high with paperwork. A bell has just rung, summoning him to vote on an amendment to a banking bill.

"Even if you want to go in another direction, you cannot go," he continues. "You have to allow yourself to be used by this force. I call it 'the spirit of history.' I have six brothers and three sisters and I often wonder: Why me? Why did I get caught up in the civil rights movement and not them? At some point in my life, I was influenced by this force that I call the spirit of history. And you just have to let it use you."

He looks at the clock, stands up, hustles off to the House of Representatives to vote.

The Cause

The spirit of history entered Lewis's life in 1958 in the form of Jim Lawson.

Lawson was a grad student at Vanderbilt's School of Divinity and an organizer for a pacifist group. Every Tuesday night, he led workshops on nonviolence for a group of students that included Lewis. Lawson taught that nonviolence was not just a tactic but a way of life, that means and ends were inseparable, that only through love could mankind create what he called "the beloved community."

"These were incredibly powerful ideas," Lewis writes, "and their beauty was that they applied to real life."

In February 1960, Lawson's students marched off, dressed as if for church, to desegregate Nashville's lunch counters. Lewis wrote a list of rules for the sit-ins: No fighting back. No cursing. No laughing. Sit up straight. Be courteous. "Remember the teachings of Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Love and nonviolence is the way."

They sat calmly at the counters while white punks taunted them, poured ketchup and mustard on them, burned them with cigarettes. Lewis was punched in the ribs, knocked off his stool. He climbed back on without saying a word. The cops came, ignored the white attackers and arrested the sitting students.

Walking to the police wagon, Lewis felt a wave of elation, like he'd been born again, a new man, a free man.

"It felt holy and noble and good," he writes. "That paddy wagon – crowded, cramped, dirty, with wire cage windows and doors – seemed like a chariot to me, a freedom vehicle carrying me across a threshold."

"No sooner did we get out of jail than John went right back and got arrested again," Lafayette recalls. "He had a dogged tenacity and a passion for justice."

All told, Lewis was arrested 17 times in Nashville before the city was finally desegregated.

In May 1961, he joined the Freedom Riders, black and white activists who boarded buses in Washington and headed south, determined to desegregate bus stations all the way to New Orleans. In Rock Hill, S.C., a mob beat Lewis to the floor, then kicked him bloody. In Montgomery, he was smacked in the head with a wooden Coca-Cola crate and knocked unconscious. A few days later, still sporting a white bandage atop his cracked head, he joined the Freedom Riders on a bus bound for Mississippi. They were arrested in Jackson, sentenced to 60 days and carted off to Parchman Farm, perhaps the scariest prison in America.

In June 1963, Lewis's legendary courage won him election as chairman of SNCC, a job that paid all of $10 a week. A few days later, he was in the White House with King and four other civil rights leaders, meeting with the president. Kennedy urged them to cancel their planned march on Washington, saying it hurt their cause.

They refused. But on the day of the march, the other leaders demanded that Lewis change his speech. It was too militant, they said, too scary. "We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did," Lewis had written. "We shall pursue our own 'scorched earth' policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground – nonviolently."

"John, that doesn't sound like you," King said.

Lewis held firm until A. Philip Randolph, the aged civil rights pioneer, begged him to cut those lines.

"How could I say no," he writes. "It would be like saying no to Mother Teresa."

But Lewis's unuttered lines proved prophetic. Over the next two years, the civil rights movement did burn Jim Crow to the ground nonviolently.

Today, that victory seems inevitable: Of course, segregation would crumble. Of course, black Americans would win the right to vote. But a lot of people died to ensure that inevitability. Four little girls bombed in a Birmingham church. Medgar Evers, shot by a sniper in Mississippi. Andy Goodman, James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner, kidnapped and executed by the Klan. Three people died in the Selma campaign alone – Jimmie Lee Jackson, shot by a state trooper; James Reeb, beaten by a segregationist; Viola Liuzzo, shot by a Klansman.

Lafayette worried that his friend John Lewis would meet the same fate. "I used to fear for his life, I really did," he says. "See, John went all through the Deep South. People in every little town would call and they'd want a leader to come. He'd go to every little town in Mississippi."

Amazingly, Lewis says he was never scared of dying. "When you get involved in something like the civil rights movement, you accept the possibility that you will die," he says. "You don't want it to happen but you lose that sense of fear. Because as long as you're afraid, the opposition has something over you."

He pauses. Of course, he adds, he isn't fearless. Two things scare the bejesus out of him, and always have – snakes and lightning.

"If they had put me out in a field during a lightning storm or if they put me in a field with snakes," he says, laughing, "then I'd have been scared."

One other thing: Marching across that bridge in Selma, he wasn't worried that the troopers would beat him, but he was a bit concerned that they might toss him over the railing and into the river.

John Lewis couldn't swim. Still can't.

'Off-the-Charts Liberal'

In the late '60s, the movement moved away from John Lewis.

He was ousted from SNCC by Stokely Carmichael and a claque of militants who wore dark sunglasses and black berets and spoke in the angry rhetoric of separatism and violence. They called Lewis a "Christ-loving damn fool" because he still believed in integration and nonviolence and the beloved community.

In 1968, he went to work on Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign. He was with Kennedy when Martin Luther King was shot and he saw Kennedy climb atop a car to deliver the terrible news to a stunned black crowd in Indianapolis.

Lewis wept for King, his hero and mentor and friend, but he drew some comfort by telling himself: "We still have Bobby Kennedy." Two months later, Lewis was campaigning with Kennedy in Los Angeles when he, too, was shot dead.

Dazed and heartbroken, Lewis retreated to Atlanta. He worked with a group that organized co-ops in the rural South, married a librarian named Lillian Miles, adopted a baby boy. In the early '70s, he headed the Voter Education Project, traveling the South, holding rallies urging blacks to register. He loved that job. It had the beautiful spirit of the movement without the constant threat of violence.

When Jimmy Carter was elected president, he appointed Lewis head of VISTA, the domestic Peace Corps program. After a few years in Washington, Lewis returned to Atlanta and won a seat on the city council.

Then, in 1986, he ran for Congress. Among his opponents in the Democratic primary was his old SNCC buddy Julian Bond. Nobody thought Lewis had a chance. Bond was slim, handsome, famous, glib. Lewis was none of those things, but he was still as dogged and determined as he'd been in Nashville and Selma. He walked the district day and night, ringing doorbells, shaking hands. He forced a runoff, then won an upset victory.

He's been in Congress 12 years now. His voting record is "off the charts liberal," he says with a smile. He voted against the Gulf War. He spoke out for gay rights and national health insurance. He helped build the bipartisan coalition that defeated a recent attempt to end affirmative action. He is a fiercely partisan Democrat but he is also fiercely independent. He broke with President Clinton on NAFTA and welfare reform. He helped bring the bacon home to Atlanta in the form of a new federal building, but he opposed this year's pork-filled highway bill as too expensive.

In 1995, he refused to join the Million Man March because of Louis Farrakhan's antisemitic rhetoric. His own rhetoric is still about integration, nonviolence and the beloved community.

"He carries an enormous – and I use that word carefully – an enormous amount of moral authority because of all he has done," says David Bonior, the Democratic whip. "People look up to him and follow him."

"John can be very partisan when he has to be, but there's something overriding that," says Rep. Amo Houghton, a New York Republican. "He's sort of anti-political, anti-ego. He's not a glib guy. I don't know if he can't be glib or he won't be glib, but it's an asset. When he speaks, it's solid, soulful, socially conscious stuff."

Keeping the Faith

"It doesn't seem like it's 33 years," John Lewis says. "Sometimes I wonder what happened to the time."

He's walking the streets of Selma again. A TV crew working on a piece about his book wanted to film him walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Now, the TV people are gone and he's wandering around Selma. He's already been past the drugstore, where he was arrested at a segregated lunch counter, and the courthouse, where he was arrested helping people register to vote, and the luncheonette where he always went when he was released from jail. He had a little ritual about getting out of jail: He'd take a shower, put on clean clothes and head for the nearest black juke joint. He'd order a burger and a soda and then lean over the jukebox, carefully choosing just the right song – usually something by Aretha Franklin or Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield. Then he'd drop his quarter in and let the music wash over him.

Now, he's walking through the George Washington Carver housing project, near the Brown Chapel, where the Selma protesters rallied. "I used to sleep in these apartments," he says, pointing to the well-tended brick buildings. "These poor people would take you in."

He keeps walking, stopping to glance at the curbside markers erected to tell the story of the Selma movement – some of them so faded you can't read them anymore.

"Congressman Lewis? Is that you?" A woman drinking coffee on a flower-decked porch calls him over. "I remember you when I was a teenage girl," she says, "and now I'm an old lady."

Betty Strong, 49, hugs Lewis, invites him up to the porch, calls her son out to shake his hand.

"I was in the march that Sunday when they beat you," she says. "It turned dark, just like the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Then it turned light. I never will forget that."

Things have changed since then. Today, Selma's congressman is black and so are five of the nine members of the city council. Joe Smitherman, who was mayor in 1965, is still in office, but he's a changed man. A few years ago, he appeared with Lewis on the Oprah Winfrey show and apologized for his actions in the bad old days.

"We register them now, but how do you motivate them to vote?" Strong tells Lewis. "See, we don't have the mass rallies anymore. The young kids don't vote. Sometimes I think Dr. King died in vain. See, we had a dream. These kids – the drugs get in and they don't have the dream."

"We've got to teach them about the struggle," Lewis says. "They don't know people died for them."

"We've seen a lot of change," Strong says, "but to me, in the '60s and '70s, Selma was more motivated."

Lewis listens, then tells her the same thing he tells audiences all over the country.

"Don't give up," he says. "Keep the faith. Things will work out."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar