YOU CAN LOOK at John Lewis and sense that he is uneasy, even angry. And the causes of his discomfort -- fighting attitudes that are so antithetical to his own beliefs -- have hit him hard.
"In Washington I have found so many people unwilling to take a chance, to take a risk. So many people don't care, are out of touch and out of tune," he says. The inviting, almost shy smile is gone.
Until recently Lewis was dircetor of domestic operations for ACTION, the federal umbrella for the Peace Corps, VISTA and other volunteer programs. He was one of Jimmy Carter's plum catches and now he's returning to Atlanta.
He resigned, he says, because a bureaucrat can't speak out on issues, especially if his target is the government he works for. And because he feels "an urgent need," as he told President Carter, to return to the South, perhaps to try again for Andrew Young's old congressional seat. Others add the element of internal friction between Lewis and Sam Brown, the agency's chief, whose blunt, confrontational approach contrasts with Lewis' turn-the-other-cheek advocacy.
As he wraps up loose ends in his Lafayette Square office, there's an obvious sense of remorse. The curves of his features, the small, brown, round eyes, the broad nose and receding hairline, all seem to have acquired an edge, the sharpness of internal haggling. Since coming to Washington, says his wife, Lillian, Lewis has aquired headaches, backaches and a reluctance to discuss his job.
Lewis, 39, is not an ordinary politician. He emerged from the tradition of civil rights workers, where compassion was a vow, a flag. For 20 years he has been at the forefront of grass roots civil and human rights movements. As one of the early chairmen of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis sat at the 1960s' round table of famous civil rights leaders. The physical price was high -- several concussions, 40 arrests, more than anyone else in the civil rights movement -- and when others turned to new causes, Lewis remained in the South.
Once Time Magazine called Lewis one of the world's "living saints," and saints, it seems, are impatient with apathy.
After 2 1/2 years at ACTION, after traveling 200,000 miles to 42 states, after drafting passionate memos to the White House that went unanswered, Lewis says he concluded that the battle of the budgets and paperwork was one he didn't want to fight.
"John is a visionary," says Sam Brown, the director of ACTION. "His frustration was that the machinery wasn't moving in the right direction when he could see the vision so clearly." Mary King, another ACTION colleague and long associate, says Lewis' try at the bureaucracy was a "form of passive resentment." Says King: "The bureaucracy eats your heart out. And it's not that John couldn't grow, he didn't want to change. He didn't want to change that idealism into a certain pragmatism. So he tried to swallow and go through. But that was insufficient."
As happens with someone who has such rigid principles and a national reputation, Lewis' value went up as soon as his name returned to the open market. In the frantic sweepstakes to enlist credible blacks for their campaigns, both the Carter and Kennedy teams are wooing him.
Lewis despises this tug-of-war. He lists his strong loyalties to both sides, beginning with contacts with both John and Robert Kennedy during the movement, his work in Robert Kennedy's presidential bid, and Ted Kennedy's campaigning for Lewis in his unsuccessful congressional try.
In Jimmy Carter's circle of black confidants are some of Lewis' closet advisers: Atlanta businessman Jesse Hill, former ambassador Andy Young and Coretta King, the widow of his own personal hero, Maretin Luther King. Yet his best friend, Georgia politician Julian Bond, is an avowed Carter critic. "I have promised the president I will remain neutral, at least until I decide about running for Congress," says Lewis.
Normally his voice has the rhythm of a dying 78 record. Now it has the slower march of anguish. "It's not like me to be neutral. In this world you have to take a stand."
On the cotton and peanut farm outside Troy, Ala., where Lewis grew up, the third of 10 children , he listened to a Sunday morning gospel show.
"That's where I first heard Martin Luther King preach. It was before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, when he first came South. I had always wanted to be a minister. At home I was in charge of the chickens and I used to preach to them," Lewis recalls.
It was those radio sermons, says Lewis, as well as his childhood circumstances, that gave him incentive to influence change. He attended a one-room shack that passed as a school for blacks. A second-hand bus carried them, on unpaved roads, past the white school, which was located near a highway that stopped where the black community began. His after-school hours were filled by picking cotton.
In 1958, he met King, after writing a letter that explained his desire to transfer from the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville to Troy State College, an all-white school near his parents' home. "I wanted to take court action to get into Troy. King agreed but my parents refused because they feared repercussions," says Lewis.
When the 18-year-old Lewis returned to Nashivelle, he tried to start an NAACP chapter but was discouraged by the school administration. He joined some local nonviolent workshops. When the sit-ins started in Greensboro, N.C., Lewis, the philosophy and theology student, was prepared. g
"To me, the whole thing was like I had the feeling that we were involved in something like a crusade . . . It was a sense of duty, you had an obligation to do it . . . redeem the city, as Dr. King said so many times, to redeem the soul of America," Lewis has told one historian of the era.
As he assumed part of the leadership of the sit-ins, he lived a Gandhian style of nonviolence. Once in Rock Hill, S.C., Lewis arrived to test the bus terminal desegregation. The white opposition welcomed him with clubs. Once after a beating by a state trooper, Lewis-addressed a rally before checking into a hospital. He had a concussion. Those sacrifices ultimately contributed to the eventual desegregation of public facilities and helped set the sympathetic mood of the Congress to pass the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.
In 1963 Lewis became national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which he helped shape into the principal youth arm of the direct action fight, until he was ousted three years later by Stokely Carmichael.
He didn't always agree with the civil rights elders. The day before the March on Washington in 1963, a heated debate ensued over Lewis' speech. He wanted to evoke the imagery of the rights workers marching like Sherman through the South -- in a nonviolent manner. He characterized the administrations' civil rights bill as "too little, too late."
Recalls Lewis: "Others objected strongly. I don't recall any point Dr. King criticized but he wanted all objections weighed. It was A. Philip Randolph (president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) who came to my rescue and let me keep in terms like 'revolutions.' We negotiated behind the statue of Lincoln right up until the last minute."
Though most people characterize today's black student population as apathetic and apolitical, Lewis sees it differently. "I sense there's a real commitment, to action in the 1980s and to nonviolent action," he says.
Recently he attended an all-black college student conclave in Atlanta. "They want to put the American black agenda back into America's consciousness. And they talked about unemployment, particularly black youth unemployment, and Third World politics. They realize that slowly we are becoming invisible again. And they realize that truth of Frederick Douglass' words in 1857, 'There must a struggle.'"
The Washington rumor mill quickly turned his discomfort with the bureaucracy into a full-scale battle with his boss, Sam Brown. People were saying that Lewis was being pushed around, that Brown used Lewis to gain credibility in the rural communities ACTION aimed to help, that Lewis had no power.
"I never had any real fights within the agency, with Sam Brown or anybody says Lewis, who had nearly 300,000 volunteers under his jurisdiction. "People around here saw me as a moralist and knew I wouldn't deviate or get involved with something I didn't agree with."
Brown, who speaks of John Lewis' example as an inspiration for his participation in the anti-Vietnam War movement, agrees. "In fact, that rumor comes out of left field," he says. "Frankly, I can't imagine anything he would say that I wouldn't support."
While ACTION officials push the line of solidarity, there have been occasional public confontations.
Their united front was severely threatened when Carolyn Payton, the director of the Peace Corps, was forced to resign because of policy differences with Brown. Her dismissal, along with those of two other blacks, led to charges of racism against the agency. Lewis, giving adivce to both Brown and Payton, was caught in the middle.
Just as the dust was settling on the dismissal, Lewis wrote a letter saying he did not think it was a racial issue. And to some outsiders it looked as though Lewis had become, in the words of one observer, a "turncoat."
He is still hesitant to discuss the episode openly. "I just thought the whole thing was badly handled," he says now. "Personally, Payton was done in by the people in the Peace Corps and Brown got some bad advice from there."
"He offered me his support," recalls Payton, now director of counseling at Howard University. "My own reading was that I couldn't ask him to support me too strongly in the fight because that would have put his job in jeopardy. That was the political reality."
Lewis' biggest mistake, according to observers, was a philosophical one. "John believed the rhetoric. He believed the togetherness stuff of the administration.He believed the rhetoric was the reality," says an observer.
"More than anything I came with a great deal of optimism," says Lewis.
Despite the troublesome tenure, Lewis is credited with improving the minority and women employment record at the agency, fighting successfully for overall budget increases, particularly one -- the citizen volunteer programs -- and bringing community groups into closer contact with the federal government.
After one trip to Appalachia, Lewis returned to the Washington office so troubled that he called several staff meetings to talk about the rural poor. "He was in real pain. There was incredible sadness and intolerance," says Margery Tabankin, director of VISTA domestic volunteers. "He had meetings all over the building, and we usually don't brief the staff on trips, but he was outraged at the public problem of the poor."
Lewis recalls his anger: "It was directed at the contrast. Despite the huge natural resources, the people lived in intense poverty. It was worse than anything I had seen in the rural South. And most of those poor were white and people don't remember that."
For Lewis, the turning point came during the congressional hearings to renew the ACTION prgorams. During one particular 14-hour session, the ACTION hierarchy was accused of funding what the conservatives labeled "subversive groups." Lewis spoke up. "If Brown and Tabankin are guilty of conspiracy, I want to be identified with it. It's a conspiracy for the good," recalls Lewis, adding, "Right then I decided it was time to go."
John and Lillian Lewis met at a New Year's Eve party, 1967. One of those arranged dates. Before the year was out, they were married.
"I was impressed with him before I met him. John, like most of the other students in the South, had a commitment to something other than self. I didn't know any contemporaries like that in Los Angeles. And when I finally met him, I was glad he was real too," says Lillian Lewis. The work the students were doing had encouraged her to leave Los Angeles for Atlanta in 1965 and she worked as a librarian with Julian Bond's mother.
She sees her husband as a paradox. "He has many sides. First he gives the appearance of being pliable, but actually he's tough and stubborn," says Lillian Lewis. "And he doesn't have much of a sense of humor. He isn't one for easy patter or glad-handing."
But he does show a light side occasionally. Earlier this year when Julian Bond was speaking to a group of ACTION volunteers, Lewis sat unsmiling as Bond berated the Carter administration. Lewis passed a note to an aide, which said, "Relax. Your job is protected by Civil Serivce, but mine is on the line tomorrow." His co-workers describe him as inspiring and dedicated, the kind of boss who will put on coveralls and help flood victims, not just go and inspect the site.
Lewis' appointment to ACTION came at a critical time. He had just resigned from the Voter Education Project, which in the seven years he headed it had registered 4 million voters, to run for Congress and had lost. The Lewis' son, John Miles, was barely a year old. When the appointment came, Lillian Lewis stayed behind in Atlanta, visiting frequently but not moving permanently into their Logan Circle house until last August. She was openly unhappy that Washington wasn't Atlanta and spent months searching for a house on Washington's Gold Coast with Atlanta prices in mind. The total renovation needed on the Logan Circle property added to the couple's discomfort.
"During the times I was here I wasn't as helpful as I should have been. When he came home battered, all I could talk about was the condition of the house," she says.
"At a dinner party with some ACTION folks," recalls Lillian Lewis, "someone brought up some problems and John, who is very tolerant of any discussion, interrupted the conversationand said, 'I don't discusss these things with Lillian.' Then I realized he was protecting me from his problems, something he had never done before. Then for the first time in the 15 years I have known him, he complained of headaches and backaches, so I knew something was eating him."
What really bothered him, he says, were the insensitivities and the inequities. He didn't understand why a recipient of a $5,000 grant had to be monitored by someone getting double or tripple that amount. "There's still the feeling that all poor people are trying to rip the government off," says Lewis.
"But more than anything, I feel a need just to be out, to be free, independent, take a stand, a position. I feel the need to be identified . . . iI really want to be out there agitating."