In the chapel at the juvenile housing unit in the D.C. jail, Deangelo Johnson chewed on his bottom lip as he sat shoulder to shoulder with civil rights icon and Congressman John Lewis.
Lewis told Johnson and other teens, all facing serious criminal cases, about growing up on a chicken farm in Alabama. He explained that a favorite teacher had encouraged him to read but that he was denied a library card because he was black.
He described how when he was 17, about their age, he wrote a letter to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and said that he wanted to attend Troy State College, a small school near his childhood home. But the school at the time did not accept blacks. King, he said, sent him a bus ticket to meet him in Montgomery, Ala., and a friendship was born.
He urged the teens not to respond to violence with violence, to find better ways to fight unfair treatment.
“Hate makes you bitter and you become hostile,” he said. “We have to do better as human beings.”
Lewis (D-Ga.) was the guest speaker Tuesday at the nonprofit Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, which brings the jailed teens together twice a week to work on their reading and writing.
Sitting in a circle of chairs were 21 African American and Latino young men, ages 16 to 17, whom the District has deemed the most violent. Most teenagers facing criminal charges in the nation’s capital are housed in youth shelters overseen by the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. But these teens were charged as adults with serious crimes such as murder, sexual assault or, in the case of 17-year-old Johnson, armed robbery.
For a little more than an hour, they listened to Lewis, 76, talk about his life of practicing nonviolence and as a leader in the 1960s civil rights movement. The teens were in the presence of history. And they knew it. As part of the reading program, their instructors had them watch the movies “Selma,” the 2014 film in which Lewis was portrayed, and “Eyes on the Prize,” the documentary in which he was featured. The teens also read Lewis’s New York Times best-selling, 121-page graphic novel “March.”
When Lewis entered the room, he greeted each teen with a handshake. “How are you doing, young brother,” Lewis said to one. “Good to see you, young brother,” he said to another.
Then each of the young men stood, said his name and was asked to describe Lewis in one word. “Integrity,” one teen said softly. “Fighter,” another declared. One said “peace.” A young man called him a “survivor,” and another said “brave.”
Lewis encouraged the teens to find their passion in life and focus on their education.
After he spoke, he opened the circle up for questions.
“Mr. Lewis,” one teen spoke up. “What would you tell the youth today?”
Lewis stood up. “Find something that is so dear, rich and necessary to follow your dream. And when you get knocked down, you get up. You must never give up. Never get lost in a sea of despair. You’ve got to be happy,” he said.
Another teen raised his hand. “What was it like when you heard Dr. King was killed?”
Lewis said he was working on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968 when news came of King’s assassination. “I just cried and cried. We all cried,” Lewis said.
But retaliation, Lewis added, was not the appropriate response, a key message to teens who might seek retribution. “I never wanted to strike back. Dr. King would never want us to strike back,” Lewis said.
During the early 1960s, Lewis served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and played a key role in the struggle to end segregation. He talked to the teens about his 1961 arrest in Jackson, Miss., for using a restroom that was designated for whites only. They laughed when he recalled how he bought a new suit — for $5 — so he could be dressed well for his mug shot before the demonstration and arrest. “I wanted to look, what’s the word today, fresh?” he said.
Lewis said that he was arrested 40 times for nonviolent protests in the ’60s. He spoke of the beatings he received in clashes with police during demonstrations, including the confrontation with police on March 7, 1965, in Selma, Ala., on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. “I thought I was going to die there. I thought I saw death,” he recalled.
Lewis also shared how time can change lives. He recounted the time, a few years ago, when a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, now feeble and in his late 80s, traveled to Washington along with his adult son. The former Klansman sat in Lewis’s office and apologized for how he treated him in Mississippi in the 1960s.
“Time does heal,” Lewis said.
Lewis said he applauded the “progress” he has seen, such as the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first black president. But Lewis added he was “disappointed” that the nation is “not where we should be” and that there is “too much violence in our society.”
“I believe a change is going to come,” he told them. “Deep in my heart, I do believe, this is going to get better.”
Seven of the teens then stood to recite a poem to Lewis, one they had written themselves. It began:
Sacrificing myself and my family for rights and education
Fighting through these ropes during segregation
Killing them with kindness and no irritation
To make an impact on this great nation. . . .
Lewis hugged each of them.
After the program, Johnson was one of the first to thank Lewis and get his autograph. On Friday, he is scheduled to be sentenced in D.C. Superior Court after pleading guilty to two counts of armed robbery and theft of a vehicle. Johnson described Lewis’s visit as “life-changing,” and he said he learned a valuable lesson.
“Even if you hate someone, you can still show them love,” Johnson said. “There are more positive ways to do things.”