John Lewis Got Civil Rights Education in Nashville

1:02 PM, Feb 6, 2013   |    comments
Georgia Congressman John Lewis in his office Tuesday Jan. 22, 2013, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Gannett/GEORGE WALKER IV, The (Nashville) Tennessean)
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By Michael Cass, The Tennessean

WASHINGTON -- John Lewis sat in a security guard's small office behind President Abraham Lincoln's statue on Aug. 28, 1963, toning down a cry for freedom and equality under a towering symbol of the end of slavery.

A century after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Lewis had to rewrite the speech he was about to give at the March on Washington. The Kennedy administration had heard what he planned to say and wasn't happy. But Lewis, a veteran of Nashville lunch counter sit-ins who was just 23, still delivered a powerful message from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at a time when civil rights remained elusive.

Fifty years later, on the other end of the National Mall, Lewis sat behind the nation's first African-American president and fought back tears as President Barack Obama was inaugurated for the second time outside the U.S. Capitol.

During a lunch after the ceremony, the president hugged Lewis and said, "Because of you, John." Obama had written the same four words on a commemorative envelope he signed for Lewis in 2009.

With typical humility, Lewis, now a Democratic congressman from Georgia, deflects the individual praise. He tends to see things more collectively.

"It says something about the distance we've come and the progress we've made as a nation, as a people," Lewis said in an interview the day after the inauguration. "To witness what happened yesterday on the observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. birthday holiday, as Lyndon Johnson would say, it's like fate and history coming together at a single time in a single place."

Lewis knew King, the Kennedys and Johnson, as the photos on his walls attest. Those connections, forged in the crucible of many of the 1960s' most wrenching and transformative events, grew out of the years he spent in Nashville as a college student ready to sacrifice for his beliefs.

"John Lewis was just the most determined of them all," said John Seigenthaler, a Tennessean editor and Kennedy aide during the early years of the civil rights movement. "He was known among them as the one who, given the option, said, 'Let's walk, let's march, let's stand in.' "

"Every scar and every bruise was a badge of honor to John."

Violence never deterred Lewis, an apostle of nonviolence who was influenced by preachers like King, James Lawson and Kelly Miller Smith. But even he sometimes finds America's changes breathtaking.

"Fifty years," he said, "is not a long time."

Preaching to the flock

He was one of 10 children raised by sharecroppers in Troy, Ala., where he often preached to the family's chickens -- a scene captured in a painting in his office. He said he would get the birds to come for their corn by calling "chick, chick, chick, bitty, bitty, bitty."

With his belongings packed in a foot locker, he enrolled at Nashville's American Baptist Theological Seminary in 1957 after his mother, who worked part time at a Southern Baptist orphanage, came home with a brochure about the small school - a twist of fate that would help change a city, a state and a nation.

Lewis began studying to become a minister and working on a cafeteria serving line. But a few months later he started thinking about transferring to his hometown school, Troy State University, where he wanted to be the first black student. He wrote a letter to King in Montgomery, Ala., to ask for help.

Soon he was on a bus to see King, who promised to help. But Lewis' parents objected, fearing they could lose their land, so he backed down.

Back at American Baptist, he met a group of bright, disciplined students there and at Nashville's other black colleges. Lawson, a Methodist minister and divinity student, started training them in the power of nonviolent protest.

Lewis took the workshops on the religious and philosophical underpinnings of passive resistance and civil disobedience to heart.

"It became a part of me: not to hate but to love," he said.

Getting started

Eventually the students began sitting in at downtown lunch counters, "standing in" outside movie theaters and riding buses into Alabama and Mississippi to dramatize the brutal realities of segregation. Lewis was on the first Freedom Ride out of Washington on May 4, 1961.

The strides he made often came at a heavy price.

Lewis was beaten and bloodied, harassed and gassed. He was arrested 40 times. He thought he would die at least twice in Alabama: first in Montgomery in 1961, when someone in a white mob at a bus station hit him with a wooden Coca-Cola crate; and four years later in Selma, where state troopers beat him with clubs and stung him with tear gas at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Roger Wilkins, an assistant attorney general during the Johnson administration, said Lewis "just didn't blink."

"He was beaten so badly, and he just got up again and kept on going," said Wilkins, a retired history professor at George Mason University. "It's just astonishing."

After Lewis' first arrest on Feb. 27, 1960, at a downtown lunch counter, he felt "so free," even though his parents had told him to stay out of trouble.

More than a year later he graduated from American Baptist, then enrolled at Fisk University to study philosophy. He stayed in Nashville until 1963, when he was elected chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, an Atlanta-based civil rights group.

But his experiences here traveled with him. He said the Nashville students, by working together selflessly, formed a small version of his constant goal: "the beloved community." In his memoir, "Walking with the Wind," he describes the term as "nothing less than the Christian concept of the kingdom of God on earth."

"Nashville prepared me," he said in Washington. "If it hadn't been for Nashville, I would not be the person I am now."

"We grew up sitting down or sitting in. And we grew up very fast."

Speaking with King

Not long after he was elected to lead SNCC, Lewis was tapped to speak at the March on Washington. He would be one of nine speakers setting the table for King.

Yet Lewis' speech is probably the one most remembered after King's "I Have a Dream" oration. His prepared remarks asked, "Which side is the federal government on?" and warned, "The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did."

Aides to President John F. Kennedy and the Catholic archbishop of Washington saw the speech and complained about it. March organizers pressed Lewis to change it.

Lewis said he told the older civil rights leaders he was speaking for the students, who were impatient for change. He caved, however, after King and A. Philip Randolph, who first proposed a march on Washington in 1941, asked him not to split the unified group.

Taylor Branch, author of an award-winning three-volume biography of King, said the furor over Lewis' speech reflected the white establishment's paranoia about a huge group of black people marching through the nation's capital. Major League Baseball canceled the Washington Senators' games the day of the march and the day after.

So Lewis and SNCC colleagues Courtland Cox and James Forman sat in the tiny office to the left of the Lincoln statue, adding, subtracting and recasting lines on a portable typewriter. The six-minute speech he finally gave still had an edge.

"Where is our party?" he asked. "Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington?"

Eighteen days later, a bomb killed four little girls at a church in Birmingham, Ala., inspiring a voting rights push that would climax in the "Bloody Sunday" beatings in Selma in 1965. Last week, as a young aide held enlarged photos from those years, Lewis told a group visiting from Georgia about the absurd tests black people used to have to take when they tried to register to vote: counting the bubbles in a bar of soap, guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar.

He keeps a jar of jelly beans in his office as a reminder.

Lewis, who left SNCC as more militant members came to power in 1966, was working for Robert F. Kennedy's presidential campaign and waiting for Kennedy to arrive at a rally in Indianapolis when King was assassinated in 1968. Lewis was "stunned stock-still, inside and out."

But he managed to keep moving, and when some advisers said the campaign should cancel the event, Lewis argued that was the wrong move. Seigenthaler, who spoke to Kennedy that day, said Kennedy told him that Lewis said, "Bobby, you can't not come."

Kennedy went on to deliver one of his most memorable speeches, reminding the audience that his own family had been ripped apart by violence. "Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world."

Two months later, Kennedy himself was killed by a bullet.

'Politics is his ministry'

After marrying Lillian Miles in 1968 and holding various nonprofit and government jobs, Lewis decided to try his hand at politics. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1977, a year after their son, John Miles, was born.

Four years later he won a seat on the Atlanta City Council, and in 1986 he made it to Congress after defeating an old SNCC friend, Julian Bond, in an awkward primary. He started his 14th term this month.

His wife was at his side through those campaigns. She died on Dec. 31, 45 years to the day after they met at a New Year's Eve party in Atlanta. Lillian Lewis was remembered for her keen intelligence and deep faith at a memorial service at Ebenezer Baptist Church - King's church - on Jan. 7.

"He is our hero," Ebenezer's senior pastor, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, said of Lewis. "But she was his anchor."

Branch said he wasn't surprised when Lewis decided he wanted to join the government he once criticized so strongly. He said Lewis "has a pretty good ear for how to relate to people."

Seigenthaler said Lewis has been pragmatic as well as spiritual since his Nashville days.

"In a real sense, I think politics is his ministry."

If that's true, then Lewis has a large congregation. Brenda Jones, his press secretary, said his office is more like a senator's than a typical House member's because "people come here from everywhere," not just his district.

On Tuesday afternoon his small reception area occasionally resembled a busy train station as a few small groups, a man from California and, seemingly out of the blue, actress Cicely Tyson came through.

When one woman said, "John, we love you," Lewis looked up from the item he was autographing and quietly replied, "Thank you. I love you, too."

Lewis used a canoe paddle - apparently a gift - to point to people in the many historic photos on his wall as Tyson, a friend from movement days, nodded in recognition. "And there's young John Lewis," he would say lightheartedly when he got to his own image. Young John Lewis, a baby-faced Freedom Rider the year Barack Obama was born, might not have been able to imagine a black president, certainly not within 50 years' time. But his words and deeds helped make it happen.

"There could have been no Super Tuesday without Bloody Sunday," Warnock said in his eulogy for Lewis' wife.

Lewis, who said Obama's ascent was made possible by "hundreds and thousands and millions of people," accepts his own role in making that happen. But he said the president understands his nation's recent history and the sweeping changes the civil rights movement created. "He is a product, he is the result, of the movement," Lewis said. "And it could only happen in America."


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