Editor's note: A version of this column was originally published in The Providence Journal on Aug. 30, 1998.
When John Lewis speaks, you hear the voice of history, a voice that helped stir the conscience of America at a time of ugliness and struggle, but also an era of hope and accomplishment, with breakthrough laws on public accommodations and voting rights. Lewis, who chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, walked with civil rights giants like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Coming from aching poverty, he left footprints at landmarks of the movement: Sit-ins at Nashville lunch counters, Freedom Rides through the South, the horrors of Birmingham and Mississippi, the splendor of the Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington.
He tells everyone he can’t believe he came from where he was to where he is now, a congressman. In fact, during a visit to Providence on Thursday, the 58-year-old black Atlanta congressman — an authentic hero of the civil rights movement — told me he can hardly believe what he went through along the way, even when he sees photographs and films of the beatings and the tear-gas attacks
Sometimes, he said, when he talks to young children, they are confused. A kid will ask, “What was it like being a slave?” Lewis said, “They have no sense that it’s contemporary history. But it’s real . . . Segregation and discrimination were very, very real.”
'The lowest form of humanity'
Lewis has written an autobiography, "Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement," that vividly captures an atmosphere and a time — from his upbringing on an Alabama cotton farm, through the movement years and into Congress, and the commitment and philosophy of nonviolence that propelled the journey, which included dozens of arrests for his civil rights protests. A white sheriff in Alabama once told him, “You’re the lowest form of humanity.”
Following a lunch at which Lewis spoke amid the elegant digs of the Citizens Bank executive dining room, I had a chance to chat with him. I wondered what aspect of the book brings the most reaction.
He said, “A lot of people come up to me and say, ‘Were you ever afraid?’ And, ‘You knew you were going to get beaten and you just kept going . . . Why didn’t you give up? Why didn’t you turn back?’ In a lot of places, I’ve had individuals come up to me, especially in the South . . . people come up crying and saying, ‘I was there and I didn’t do anything.’ A lot of white Southerners come up and say, ‘I didn’t do anything, I was afraid to speak out, I was afraid to say anything, I should have said something.’ ”
Lewis’s lack of bitterness is striking. “I made up my mind a long time ago that I wouldn’t become bitter, I wouldn’t become hostile, and I lost the sense of fear," Lewis told me. "I was told over and over again by my parents, by my grandparents, ‘Don’t get in trouble, don’t go to jail,’ because to go to jail was a bad thing . . . My mother always said, ‘Be particular, stay in your place.’ But the first time I got arrested and went to jail, I felt free, I felt liberated, I felt I had crossed over. So I lost my sense of fear.”
Still, of course, he couldn’t have felt free when he was being beaten. “It hurt,” Lewis said quietly. He said he recently saw film clips of the time he and other civil rights demonstrators were turned back, beaten and gassed, as they sought to march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. “I heard women and children crying and yelling. I guess, for the first time, I really listened, and it made me cry.”
The book’s account is chilling:
The troopers and possemen swept forward as one, like a human wave, a blur of blue shirts and billy clubs and bullwhips. We had no chance to turn and retreat. There were six hundred people behind us, bridge railings to either side and the river below.
I remember how vivid the sounds were as the troopers rushed toward us - the clunk of the troopers’ heavy boots, the whoops of rebel yells from the white onlookers, the clip-clop of horses’ hooves hitting the hard asphalt of the highway, the voice of a woman shouting, “Get ’em] Get the niggers]”
And then they were upon us. The first of the troopers came over me, a large, husky man. Without a word, he swung his club against the left side of my head. I didn’t feel any pain, just the thud of the blow, and my legs giving way. I raised an arm - a reflex motion - as I curled up in the “prayer for protection” position. And then the same trooper hit me again. And everything started to spin.
I heard something that sounded like gunshots. And then a cloud of smoke rose all around us.
. . . I began choking, coughing. I couldn’t get air into my lungs . . . I really felt that I saw death at that moment, that I looked it right in its face. And it felt strangely soothing.
But soon he felt the toll:
I was bleeding badly. My head was now exploding with pain. That brief, sweet sense of just wanting to lie there was gone.
Weeks later, the march to Montgomery did take place, and months afterward Congress passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
A segregated childhood picking cotton
Lewis went to segregated schools. He was denied a public library card. He sometimes had to miss school to pick cotton on the farm his father had bought for $300 in 1944.
As a child, he told me, he dreamed of escape: He and a cousin fantasized about cutting down a pine tree — “the largest pine tree we could find, and we located it, and we were going to make a bus out of it.” He said, “We were going to use the big part of the tree for wheels and we were going to roll out of Alabama.”
The story that gave the book its title happened when he was 4. The wind from a thunderstorm blew so hard that it began to lift a corner of his aunt’s house. She had him and his other young relatives clasp hands and walk toward the corner and then, as the wind lifted another corner, to that corner.
And so it went, back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.
Lewis told me, “That’s what we’ve been doing in America, going from Selma to Montgomery to Birmingham to Nashville to Washington, black and white together, trying to hold the American house together, trying to quiet the storm.”
Serving in Congress, as high an honor as it is, must seem tame compared with what Lewis experienced during the civil rights era of the early 1960s. Does he sometimes think his finest hour is behind him?
There will never be anything to compare with the intensity of life in the movement, Lewis told me. “The people that you were sitting in with, people that you were going on Freedom Rides with, the people that you were getting beaten with, almost dying with — and some people did die together — they became brothers and sisters. We became like a family and we looked out for each other, and we lost that.”
But he remains hopeful that America will continue to progress. The Rev. Naomi Craig, the Sheldon Street pastor, who also is black, says, “John Lewis means to me what God wants for every one of us, to have an open heart and keep on trying.”
Lewis told me each generation must make a contribution. “That’s what I try to say to young people all the time: ‘Do your part. Don’t stand on the sidelines. Don’t be apathetic. Don’t be complacent. Make a little noise. Agitate a little bit for what is right.’ ”
M. Charles Bakst was a political columnist in 1998 for The Providence Journal, where this piece first appeared.
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This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: John Lewis was the voice of history, conscience and hope for America