BRIAN LAMB: Congressman John Lewis, why did you name your book ”Across that Bridge?”
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, during the past few years, I’ve been crossing bridges, rivers, mini bridges, bridges of understanding, building bridges, trying to bring people together to create what I like to call the beloved community.
LAMB: Where does the Edmond Pettus Bridge come into that picture?
LEWIS: Well, the Edmond Pettus Bridge is symbolic of so many bridges, but in 1965, when I was much younger, and head of an organization called the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, a group of young people, students, and others, attempted to cross the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama to march 50 miles from Selma to Montgomery to dramatize to the nation and to the world that people wanted simply to register to vote. We were walking in twos. And when we arrive at the apex of the bridge down below, we saw a sea of blue, Alabama state troopers. And we continued to walk.
And we came within hearing distance of the state troopers. And a man identified himself and said I’m Major John Cloud of the Alabama State Troopers. This is an unlawful march. And it will not be allowed to continue. And one of the young people walking beside me said, Major, give us a moment to kneel and pray. And the major said, troopers advance. And they came toward us, beating us with nightsticks and bullwhips, trampling us with horses, and releasing the tear gas.
At the foot of that bridge, I was beaten. I thought I was going to die. I thought I saw death. So at the foot of that bridge, I gave a little blood to make it possible for all people to be able to participate in a democratic process. So the book, it just a symbolic bridge or mini bridges that we still must cross, rivers that we still must cross, before we build a beloved community, a truly democratic, multiracial society in America.
LAMB: Did you ever look up who Edmond Pettus was?
LEWIS: I did look up and discover this man, Edmond Pettus, a general in Alabama. You know, the bridge, this particular bridge, was dedicated the same year that I was born in 1940. So I have a kinship to this bridge. And every year, sometime more than once year, but every year, I make it a point to go back to that bridge and cross that bridge. And for the past 47 years, I’ve gone back the weekend the first weekend in March since 1965.
LAMB: How did it fit in with everything that was going on back in the ’60s?
LEWIS: In order to travel from Montgomery to Selma, you had to cross that bridge. You had to cross the Alabama River. Selma was in the heart of the black belt of Alabama. That’s where hundreds and thousands of poor, black people lived. They had been sharecroppers. They had been tenant farmers.
But this little town, Selma, was a place of commerce. And people would come on a Friday and Saturday to shop. But in Selma, people could not register to vote simply because of the color of their skin. Only 2.1 percent of blacks were registered to vote. You had to pass a so-called literacy test. On one occasion, a man was asked to count how many bubbles on a bar of soap. On another occasion, a man was asked to count the number of jelly beans in a jar. People stood in what I call unmovable lines. The only time you could even attempt to go down to the county courthouse and go up a set of steps or a set of double doors and get a copy of the so-called literacy test and the application was on the first and third Mondays of each month. And on occasion, the registrar would up a sign, saying the Office of the Registrar is closed. And people went there day in and day out, standing in line. People were beaten. Some arrested and jailed while they stood there.
LAMB: Today, the mayor of Selma is the second African American to have that job?
LEWIS: The mayor of Selma is the second African American mayor in that city. The city council is a biracial city council. The police chief is an African American. Selma is a different place today. It is a better place today.
LAMB: What happened to you after you were beaten? Where’d you go?
LEWIS: On that Sunday afternoon, I was beaten. And 47 years later, I don’t recall how I made it back to the little church that we had left from. But apparently, someone literally carried me back to the church. I felt like I was going to die. I do recall, I thought I saw death. I really thought I was going to die.
But I do remember being back at that church, a little brown chapel at AME church in downtown Selma. The church was full to capacity. More than 2,000 people on the outside, trying to get in, to protest what had happened on the bridge. And someone asked me to say something. And I stood up and said I don’t understand it, I don’t understand it, how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam and cannot send troops to Selma, Alabama to protect people whose only desire is to register to vote.
And the next thing I knew, along with 16 other people, had been transferred to the local hospital in Selma, the Good Samaritan Hospital that was operated by a group of nuns. And these wonderful sisters, they took care of us. And today, many of those sisters are retired, living in Rochester, New York. And I plan to go there to visit them within the next few days.
LAMB: Anybody severely wounded, that they didn’t get out of the hospital for a long time?
LEWIS: There were people who stayed for a few days, a few weeks. I got out within two days.
LAMB: Any of the names that were around you, would they be familiar to us, the people you marched with?
LEWIS: Well, I marched with later, not on that day, but later during the week and the following weeks with Martin Luther King, Junior. Dr. King came to the hospital to visit us the next day. And he said to me, he said, John, don’t worry. We’ll make it from Selma to Montgomery. He told me that we had made an appeal for religious leaders to come to Selma. And two days later, more than 1,000 priests, rabbis, nuns, and ministers came. And they marched to the same point where we had been beaten two days earlier.
And one young minister went out with a group that following Tuesday evening, to try to get something to eat at a local restaurant. They were attacked members of the Klan. He was so severely beaten, the next day, he died at a local hospital in Selma in Birmingham, Alabama, rather. He was from Boston, Reverend James Reed.
LAMB: So when was it that people could leave Selma, walk across the bridge, and go all the way to Montgomery and not get hassled?
LEWIS: We went into federal court and got an order against Sheriff Jim Clark, who was the sheriff of Selma and Dallas County, and against Governor George Wallace. And a federal judge issued an order saying that we had a right to march. President Lyndon Johnson came and spoke to a joint session of the Congress eight days after bloody Sunday and condemned the violence in Selma, introduced the Voting Rights Act. And before he concluded that speech, he said and we shall overcome. We call it the ”we shall overcome” speech. It probably was one of the most meaningful speeches any American president had delivered in modern time on the whole question of civil rights.
LAMB: On that note of we shall overcome, you mentioned in your book about Rosa Parks. And you go back to her training. You say that she wasn’t trained I mean, that when she sat in that bus and wouldn’t get up, that she had an earlier training for that in Tennessee. Can you tell us about that place?
LEWIS: There is a little school, at that time, a little school that exists in Tennessee in a little place called Mount Eagle, Tennessee. It is between Nashville and Chattanooga, Tennessee, and was called Highlander Folk School.
It was started by a guy, a brave and courageous white gentleman by the name of Miles Horton. It was a wonderful place. And he was a wonderful, wonderful man. It was to train and organize union people, many white workers. And then, he started working in a whole area of race relation, bringing black people and white people together. It was one of the few meeting places in the heart of deep South, where blacks and whites could meet. They start training people there how to organize, how to become community organizers, how to protest. And that’s where we start singing we shall overcome. That’s where Rosa Parks heard it. Rosa Parks said it was the Highlander folk school, where she had her first meal with someone of a different race.
It was also for me the first place that I had a meal with someone white. But we worked together. We studied together. And we studied the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence. We studied what Ghandi attempted to do in South Africa, what he accomplished in India. We studied what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was all about in Montgomery. We studied Thoreau and civil disobedience.
So we were prepared when the sit-ins came and the Freedom Ride. And by the time of Selma, we were more than prepared.
LAMB: So Rosa Park was in 1955, the bus incident.
LEWIS: Rosa Parks took a seat on December 1st, 1955 in downtown Montgomery. And that led to the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and ’56.
LAMB: You’d have been 15 then?
LEWIS: I was 15 years old. And I remember like it was yesterday. I heard about it on the radio. I read about it in a local newspaper, but we were too poor to have a newspaper subscription, but my grandfather had one. And when you were finished reading his newspaper each day, we would get this newspaper. And we would read his newspaper.
And I followed the drama of the Montgomery bus boycott. Now when I was growing up, and visit the little town of Troy, Alabama, or visit Tuskegee, or visit Montgomery, and see those signs that said white men, colored men, white women, colored women, white waiting, colored waiting, and asked my mother and my father, my grandparents, my great grandparents why, why, they would say that’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.
But it was individuals like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. and others that inspired me to get in trouble. And today, I called it good trouble, necessary trouble.
LAMB: You say in your book that you were in 40 different prisons or 40 different times you were behind bars. Can you tell us about some of those?
LEWIS: The first time I got arrested was in Nashville, Tennessee. I was a student there.
LAMB: At Fisk?
LEWIS: I was a student at Fisk. I first attended a little school called American Baptist College for four years and then Fisk for two years. I spent six years in Nashville. Nashville, Tennessee was the first city that I lived in. I grew up in rural, rural Alabama. And going off to school there, I wanted to find a way to get in the way. I wanted to find a way to do something. When I heard Dr. King speaking on the radio, I felt like he was speaking directly to me, saying John Robert Lewis, you too can do something. You can make a contribution.
So going to Nashville and to Highlander Folk School prepared me to find a way. And I got involved in the sit-ins.
LAMB: How did you know about Highlander Folk School?
LEWIS: Attending meetings in Nashville, attending school, a church. And people would say you can go to Nashville. And from Nashville, you can go and visit Highlander Folk School. They’re training people. They’re teaching people. And when I got a chance to go with a group of my schoolmates and classmates, I made the trip there. And it was there that I literally grew up. It taught me how to be prepared to sit-in. It taught me how to help organize. It I grew up, I literally grew up at the age of 18 and 19.
LAMB: Was Marion Barry at Fisk when you were there?
LEWIS: Marion Barry was a graduate student at Fisk University when I was in Nashville. He attended some of the first non violent workshop. And he later became the chairperson of the student non-violent coordinating committee, but he participated in the very first sit-in, the test sit-ins.
We had what we called test sit-ins in Nashville in the fall of 1959, students from Fisk University, Tennessee State University, Vanderbilt University, Peabody College, Meharry Medical College, and American Baptist. And we had just test the facilities, just establish the fact that we would be served or denied service. It was an interracial group of black and white college students.
LAMB: Why did you major in Philosophy? And do you have a favorite philosopher?
LEWIS: I majored in Philosophy. I was interested in becoming a minister. I studied philosophy and religion long before I went off to school. I had the desire, this burning desire. Some people call it a calling that you’re called to preach. You’re moved by the Spirit, but I felt I needed to be trained.
When I was a little boy, I used to from time to time, play church as a very, very, very young child. And it was my responsibility on the farm to care for the chickens, to raise the chickens. So we would gather all of our chickens together in the chicken yard. And my brothers and sisters and my cousins would help make up the audience, make up the congregation.
And I would start speaking or preaching. And when I look back, some of these chickens would bow their heads. Some of these chickens would shake their heads. They never quite said Amen, but I’m convinced that some of those chickens that I preached to during the ’40s and the ’50s tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues listen to me today. And some of those chickens was just a little more productive. At least, they produced eggs.
But those chickens taught me patience. And by the time I got to Nashville to school, and the movement, I was prepared. I was ready to sit there, to sit in, to wait and wait all day into late evening to be served. And we were denied service. And we were arrested. And we went to jail.
The first time I got arrested was on February the 27th, 1960. And when I was arrested, I felt free.
LAMB: Where did you go?
LEWIS: I was taken, placed in a wagon. And from that police wagon or van, taken to the city jail with 88 other students.
LAMB: What’s the longest time you ever spent in a prison?
LEWIS: The longest time I ever spent in a prison was in Mississippi.
LEWIS: It was in Parchman. In Parchman, it was no one no one in their right mind wanted to go to Parchman.
LAMB: Tell us about Parchman.
LEWIS: Parchman, you know, people are right about Parchman in novels, plays, poems, Parchman was known as sort of no man’s land. People go there and some people didn’t return. I remember so well after staying many days in jail in Jackson, Mississippi, the city jail, the county jail, and then taken down to Parchman.
LAMB: Who were there others that we would know that were with you at the time?
LEWIS: One of the young people that went to jail with me in Parchman was Bob Filner. He was a congressperson from California. He was only 19 years old. I was 21 at the time. But there was individuals like the Reverend James Lawson, became one of our wonderful teachers of the philosophy and discipline of non-violence. Bernard Laugfed, James Belver, Diane Nash, these were all young people in the movement. There were men and women that got arrested and went to jail. William Sloane Coffin got arrested and went to jail. There was lawyers, ministers, rabbis, priests. People came from all over the country. They couldn’t take seeing people being arrested and taken to jail simply because they wanted to be served at a lunch counter or ride together on a bus.
LAMB: You didn’t tell us who your favorite philosopher was?
LEWIS: My favorite philosopher when I was studying was Hegel. Hegel talked about the thesis - anthesis. He talked about the struggle between good and evil, that in society, if you’re going to bring about change, there must be a struggle. And there must be a division between the forces of darkness and the forces of light, the forces of good and the forces of evil. And somehow, out of that evil and good, something wholesome must emerge. And in the final analysis, you got to move toward reconciliation.
So in the book, I talk about in the very last chapter, I talk about reconciliation. On the freedom rides in May of 1961, my seat mate was a young white gentleman. The two of us arrived at a little bus station in Rockhill, South Carolina. We were beaten, left bloody, left in a pool of blood. And one of the young men that beat me on May 9, 1961 came to my office in Washington in February ’09.
LAMB: Edwin Wilson?
LEWIS: Yes, Edwin Wilson, Mr. Wilson, came to my office with his son, who had been encouraging his father to seek out the people that he had abused and attacked during the ’60s. He came and said Mr. Lewis, I’m one of the people that attacked you, that beat you. I want to apologize. Will you accept my apology? Will you forgive me? He started crying. His son started crying. I started crying. He hugged me. I gave him a hug. He called me brother. I called him brother. And since then, I’ve seen the gentleman four more times. That was moving to a reconciliation.
And even today, when I go back to places in Alabama, other part of the South, young people and people not so young, some older people, white people of the South come up and say, Mr. Lewis, Congressman Lewis, I want to apologize to you on behalf of all of the white people of Alabama of the South for what we did.
LAMB: Mr. Wilson and you were in confrontation physically where he assaulted you where?
LEWIS: Mr. Wilson beat me, knocked me down, left me bloody at the Greyhound bus station in Rockhill, South Carolina, which is about 35 miles from Charlotte, North Carolina.
LAMB: What was the occasion?
LEWIS: We were traveling through the South as part of the freedom riders, traveling on a Greyhound bus and some on a Trailway bus. Back in 1961, after you left Washington, D.C., black people and white people couldn’t be seated together on a bus, couldn’t use the same waiting room, couldn’t be seated together at a lunch counter, or in a restaurant, couldn’t use the same restroom facilities. We were testing a decision of the United States Supreme Court, trying to make it real. And people, not just in South Carolina, but in Alabama, people beat us at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery, left us bloody, and tried to bring down a church with hundreds of people in it that came to salute the freedom riders. And we were rolled on to Mississippi. And in Jackson, we were arrested, hundreds of us. We filled the city jail, the county jail. And later, we were transported to the state penitentiary at Parchman.
LAMB: How long were you in Parchman?
LEWIS: I was in Parchman for about 40 days.
LAMB: What impact did it have on you?
LEWIS: Parchman gave me time to reflect, gave me time to contemplate, gave me the sense that I’m like a tree planted by the rivers of waters and I shall not be moved. It gave me a greater sense of determination and stick-to-it-ness that when I got out, I was going to continue to do what I could to end segregation and racial discrimination in the American South.
LAMB: You’d been in Congress how many years?
LEWIS: I’ve been in Congress at the end of this year would be 26 years.
LAMB: How did your autobiography do? We were last together and talking about that a number of years ago. It’s still selling?
LEWIS: The autobiography, memoir, ”Walking with the Wind,” it is still selling. It is doing very, very well. As a matter of fact, in many high schools and some colleges and universities around the country, it’s required reading.
LAMB: Why did Mr. Wilson come back to reconcile with you? What triggered it?
LEWIS: More than anything else, I believe the election of President Barack Obama moved him, but it’s also the influence of his son. His son wanted his father to be on the right side. And the father really wanted to be on the right side. This man is a wonderful, wonderful human being. He took a lot of heat for having the courage to do what he did, because the local press back in Rockhill. And then, he was on national television. And so, people saw that he got telephone calls.
But he’s a brave and courageous man. He said it was the right thing to do. And he’s very, very sincere. And he made me feel freer, and just meeting him, he was the very first person to come to me and apologize really.
LAMB: I want to show you a different person in the movement. This goes back to 1966. And it’s part of a speech that he gave. And I want to ask you the contrast, because you were both head of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. Let’s watch this.
STOKELY CARMICHAEL: If black people control Lawrence County, they’ve got the tax assesor, or the tax collector, and the guns, the sheriff, they’re going to raise the property tax, since they don’t own property Lawrence County, white people either go sell or pay the taxes. And we can all go on welfare for a decent salary.
And it becomes crystal to me that if you have black people who were responsive to the Manhattan, where they control it, since they’re 60 percent that they can then begin to change the economy of that country. And the pressure that black people will fight for will, in fact, motivate and move the rest of this country, because this country moves precisely because of the Civil Rights Movement. That’s why this country must stop it. Johnson must stop the Civil Rights Movement because it is the biggest threat to his Great Society.
LAMB: A man that looked at life a little bit differently than you did. Did you get along with him?
LEWIS: I got along with Stokely. He came South during the fall, late summer of 1961 during the Freedom Rides, and later came back during the Mississippi summer project in 1964. But I don’t think Stokely ever understood the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence. He never made that commitment.
He grew up in New York City, attended Howard University. And I think those of us who grew up in the heart of the deep South, who came under the influence of Martin Luther King, Jr. and individuals like Jim Lawson, who had a sort of a baptism in the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence. We took the long, hard look. We believed that our struggle was not a struggle that last for a day or a few weeks or a few months or a semester. It was a struggle of a lifetime. And I said then, and I said even today, that you have the pace yourself a long, hard look, the long, hard struggle.
And you have to come to that point and accept non-violence as a way of life, as a way of living. Our struggle was not a struggle between blacks and whites, not a struggle between people, but a struggle between what is right and what is wrong, what is good, what is evil, between the forces of justice and the forces of injustice.
In the movement, during the time when I was chair of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, and in the movement itself in general, we call ourselves a circle of trust, a band of brothers and sisters. When someone got arrested with you, went to jail with you, someone beaten with you, almost died with you, you forget about race and color.
LAMB: How did the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee start? And who funded it in the early days? And where did it start?
LEWIS: The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee grew out of the sit-in movement. There was a young woman by the name of Ella Baker. She was not that young at the time, but she was young at heart.
LAMB: Now deceased?
LEWIS: Now deceased. She was working for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as his executive assistant in Atlanta at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And when the sit-in started spreading all across the South, like wildfire, Dr. King requested of her to call these young people together from the different college campus and have a conference. And she made the decision to hold this conference Easter weekend, April 1960, at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. And the reason she went to Shaw University, she knew the school, because she was a graduate of Shaw University. She had worked for the NAACP. She had worked for the YWCA, for the NAACP. She was just one of these smart, gifted women that knew everybody. And she pulled this conference off. And all of these young people, but many, not just black young people, but many young white people.
LAMB: Was she white or black?
LEWIS: She was black, but she had many, many allies in the white community, friends in the civil and social and religious organizations. And it was in that meeting that Dr. King thought that the students would become the youth arm or the student arm of his organization. But she insisted that we make up our own mind and create our own organization. So the organization were called the temporary Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. And Marion Barry, who had been a graduate student at Fisk University in Nashville, became the temporary chair of the temporary Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee April of 1960. And later, there was a fall meeting in Atlanta on Morehouse College campus, where the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee became a permanent organization with Marion Barry as the chair of the organization.
James Clyburn, who is now in the Congress, was one of the students from South Carolina, who attended the meeting with us in Atlanta in October 1960.
LAMB: And his daughter’s now a member of the Federal Communications Committee?
LEWIS: His daughter is a member of the Federal Communications Commission.
LAMB: Mignon. Do you I want to show you some more video of Stokely Carmichael, because I want to ask you what years later, I think I did the last interview with him. And he died back in 1998, ’99. His name then was Kwame Ture. And in this interview, you’ll see I ask him about his career and all that. Let’s watch a little bit of what he had to say. And tell us why he went one way and you went another?
CARMICHAEL: Both worked you know, for me the difference here must clear between King and I, we started to talk about it before on pr้cising the black power. But as we said, King took it as a principle, as a principle being an honest man, which he was, King had to use it all times under all conditions. For us, non-violence was tactic, if you go back and look at some of your documentation, you will see me non-violent. I had been beaten. I had been sent to hospitals on non-violent demonstrations. And I’ve never broken non-violent demonstration. Only once in my life, and that was on the Mississippi March when the policeman pushed Dr. King have I ever broken the non-violent discipline.
So I accept it, you know, but if it’s no longer working now, I’m not going to, like Dr. King, to become hostage to what I consider to be a tactic as a principle. I’m going to pick up guns.
LEWIS: I’m convinced that Stokely never, never, ever allowed himself to adhere to non-violence as a way of life as a way of living. He saw it only as a technique, only as a tactic as you said, only as a means to an end.
But those of us who accepted the philosophy of non-violence as a way of life, as a way of living, we were saying in effect that means and ends are inseparable, that if you accept this idea that you’re going to create the beloved community, if the beloved community is the end, if that is the goal, the methods, the means must be one of love, one of peace. And if you accept this idea that in the bosom of every creature, every human being, that there is this spark of what I call the divine, you don’t have a right to abuse it. You respect the dignity and the worth of every person. And you as Dr. King would say hate, bitterness, is too heavy a burden to bare.
LAMB: Back in those early ’60s, you talked a little bit about the freedom rides and about you being chairman of SNCC, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee for three years?
LEWIS: Yes, I served three long years as chair of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, longer than any other person.
LAMB: How big was the organization?
LEWIS: The organization had hundreds, hundreds of what we call members in that one time there were staffers. But people were paid pennies. They were not people with big salaries. Most of the individuals got like maybe $10 a week. And you got money for gasoline if you had a car and you had to drive some place, if you had to fly some place.
But it was students from around the country and other organizations and individuals and groups that supported SNCC. It was a very poor organization.
LAMB: During your time, what’s the biggest accomplishment you had?
LEWIS: During the time that I served as chair, it was during the March on Washington.
LAMB: How much did you have to do? I know you were standing on the steps there, but and you were how old on that day?
LEWIS: I was 23 in 1963 when I became chair of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. And one of the first obligations that I had was to attend a meeting, along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and several others with President Kennedy in June of 1963. And it was at that meeting that we told President Kennedy that we were going to march on Washington. I would never forget it. President Kennedy didn’t like the idea of hundreds and thousands of people coming to Washington. He said if you bring all these people to Washington, won’t there be violence and chaos and disorder? We’ll never get a civil rights bill through the Congress.
And it was Avil Randau,who we consider the dean of black leadership, he was a labor leader, civil rights, icon really, he spoke up and said Mr. President, this will be an orderly, peaceful, non-violent protest. And we went around the country organizing, mobilizing. And we invited four major white religious and labor leaders to join us in issuing the call for the March on Washington.
So there was 10 of us that spoke and considered ourselves the leaders of the march. And I spoke number six. Dr. King spoke number 10. And out of the 10 people that spoke that day, I know only one’s still around.
But I remember so well after the march was over, after Dr. King had delivered that speech, President Kennedy invited us back down to the White House. He stood in the door of the Oval Office, greeting each one of us. He was like a beaming proud father. He was so glad that everything had gone so well. And he said you did a good job, you did a good job. And when he got to Dr. King, he said and you had a dream. It was my last time seeing President Kennedy.
LAMB: What’s your reaction? This is not a positive, but what’s your reaction to over the years, the King family charging money for ability for somebody to look at the ”I have a dream speech?”
LEWIS: I don’t quite understand, I don’t quite understand. I cannot make sense of that. No, the speech belongs to the ages. And I guess any of us could have could charge for someone reading or using the speech, but I don’t know anyone doing anything like that. Would we charge someone for the Gettysburg Address, or some inaugural address by presidents? It’s or the State of the Union Address? That speech belong to history.
LAMB: Do you have any idea why?
LEWIS: I have never been able to understand that. I really don’t. I think it’s heresy. I don’t think Dr. King would be very pleased to know that his heirs charged for using his likeness or using his speech according from an address.
LAMB: There’s another person that I believe was chairman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Commission, a guy named Committee named H. Rap Brown.
LEWIS: H. Rap Brown, I never got really to know H. Rap Brown. He came long after I was no longer there. I made a decision when I was no longer the chair of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee to leave because they laid down a their commitment to the philosophy and to the discipline of non-violence. And I didn’t want to be associated with an organization or with a group that could not adhere and preach the philosophy.
LAMB: As you know, he’s in prison for murder since 2000, but I want to show. His whole approach was even more agitating than Stokely Carmichael.
H. RAP BROWN: Lyndon Johnson, he can always raise an argument about law and order, because he never talked about justice, but black people fall for that same argument. And they go around talking about law breakers. We did not make the laws in this country. We are neither morally, nor legally confined to those laws. Those laws that keep them up, keep us down. You’ve got to begin to understand that.
For 400 years, he taught you white nationalism and you lapped it up. You taught it to your children. You had your children thinking that everything black was bad. Black cows don’t give good milk, black hens don’t lay eggs, black for funerals, white for weddings. That’s white nationalism. Santa Claus. A white honky who slides down a black chimney and comes out white.
LAMB: I have to say that last remark was interesting. White honky who slides down a black chimney comes out white.
LEWIS: There’s a lot of rhetoric and there’s a lot of playing on words and very emotional.
LAMB: Did it work?
LEWIS: And that was not that was not part of the SNCC that I knew.
LAMB: What happened?
LEWIS: Something went wrong. SNCC came to that point where in my estimation, it was forced to die a natural death. We were conceived in this whole idea of the building of a truly interracial democracy. There were black students and white students, working together, building together, suffering together. You cannot forget that in 1964, one year after I became chair, during the Mississippi summer project, that we recruited all these young people, blacks and whites, primarily students, but lawyers, and doctors, and priests, and nuns came to work in Mississippi during the Voter Registration drive. That state had a black vote in each population or more than 450,000, but only about 16,000 were registered to vote.
And these young people and people not so young came there to work in their freedom schools. And three young men that I knew, that I had met during the early part of the summer, Andy Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, white, James Cheney, African American, went out on a Sunday night, June 21st, 1964. They were detained by the sheriff, later taken to jail. That same evening, they were taken from jail, beaten, shot, and killed. These three young men died there. Their bodies were discovered six weeks later. And you cannot forget that, that people suffered together, bled together, died together. And then, how can a movement make that radical jump by 1967 or 1968? And people like Stokely and Rap came to that point, where they were saying that all white people should leave SNCC, should leave and go and work in a white community. Our movement was an interracial movement. It was not to be a movement where we expel people, it was all inclusive.
LAMB: By the way, in all of this, when did you meet your wife? Because I know you dedicated the book to her.
LEWIS: I met my wife at the end of 1967 at a dinner party. And we started dating.
LAMB: Where was the dinner party?
LEWIS: It was the dinner party was in Atlanta at a friend of her’s home. And there was a discussion about the Civil Rights Movement about Dr. King and the movement. And she defended. She was a strong defender of the movement. And I guess that’s sort of warmed me toward her.
And she was wearing a beautiful dress. And it had the peace symbols. And I think that’s sort of grew me toward her. And I said to myself, this young lady believed in peace. And I don’t know whether it was planned or whether it was a conspiracy on the part of the hosts of the party that she would defend the movement and that she would wear this dress with the peace symbol, but from that day on, we hit it off very well.
LAMB: She you were 27. Were there people at that dinner party that were already against the movement?
LEWIS: Well, there was some people, not necessarily arguing against the movement, but there was some people questioning some of the tactics and techniques in where we were going. There were people, but she was a strong defendant. She grew up in Los Angeles. She had never lived in the South. She had attended UCLA, USC. And she had spent two years in the Peace Corps. She studied to be a librarian. She came South to work at one of the university, at Atlanta University as the librarian. And she had a tremendous amount of interest in the Civil Rights Movement. And
LAMB: Do you have children?
LEWIS: We have one son. He’s in Atlanta. He’s take a great deal of interest in music and also in politics, but he didn’t want to run for any office.
LAMB: How much of Atlanta do you represent?
LEWIS: In the present district, I represent all of the city of Atlanta, the entire city. Well, most of the colleges, like Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, Morehouse, Spelman, Morris Brown, Clark, Atlanta University, but also represent Emory, CDC, major corporations are all in the district. It’s a wonderful district, wonderful people.
LAMB: Let me read from your book in the introduction. ”Remember how we thought the election of President Obama meant we had finally created a post racial America, a place where the problems that have haunted us for a long were finally silenced. Nobody says that anymore. We no longer dwell on that daydream. We were shaken to realism by the harshness of what we have witnessed in the last few years, the vilification of President Obama, the invisibility of the sick and poor murder at the Holocaust Museum and the shooting of Representative Gabriel Giffords while she greeted constituents in a Safeway parking lot.”
LEWIS: In spite of the election of President Barack Obama, we’re not there yet. We made a lot of progress. His election, a major step down a very, very long road. But we have not yet created the beloved community.
People ask me all the time whether the election of President Barack Obama is the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream. I said no, it’s just a down payment.
LAMB: How painful is it for you to look back in your support of Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama?
LEWIS: I don’t feel any pain. I really don’t feel any pain.
LAMB: What was the reason?
LEWIS: I knew President Clinton. I knew Hillary. I’ve known them long before I ever met President Barack Obama. And they had been friends of mine. They had been supporters of mine. President Clinton came to Atlanta, celebrated my birthday, my 50th. And President Senator Obama came for my 65th. He was still in the Senate. But he’s a good friend of mine. I’m still a good friend of President Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama. We’re like a family.
And that’s what the movement was all about. And we’re one family. We’re be one people. We’re one house. We may have our differences here or there, but we work through them.
LAMB: Let me read you another sentence. The president of the United States was called a liar during a joint session of Congress at a State of the Union address. It was probably the lowest point of decorum I have witnessed in more than 20 years in the Congress.
LEWIS: It was unreal. It was unbelievable when I heard a member of Congress. It is just you know, you have your differences. You have your feeling, but respect the office of the president if you cannot respect a man.
LAMB: Let me show you some videotape I found in our archives. Just a second.
REP BARBARA LEE: President Clinton was impeached for lying about sexual involvement with an aide. Evidence has come into light that Bush and his administration have lied to the world. And to date, little is being done about it. I ask you, which infraction is more serious and warrants our time and money for investigation? Again, Lodi, California.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: The Chair would remind members that it is not an order to accuse the president of lying, or stating intentional falsehoods, even if by innuendo. Further, a member may not read into the record the remarks of others if they would be out of order as spoken by the member. Thank you.
REP. PETE STARK: But the President Bush’s statements about children’s health shouldn’t be taken any more seriously than his lies about the war in Iraq. The truth is that Bush just likes to blow things up.
UNIDENTIFIED PARTICIPANT: Members are reminded not to refer to the president in any personal way.
LAMB: Both sides do it.
LEWIS: It is my hope that we all can come together and be a little more civil, be a little more human. That’s what I’m trying to say in this book. Can we just going back to Mr. Wilson, do we have the courage, do we have the power, do we have the ability, do we have the capacity sometime just to say, I’m sorry, will you forgive me? Can we get along?
Leaders must lead. You know, people around the nation, around they see us on C-Span. And leaders must be a headlight and not a tail light.
LAMB: In the chapter ”Peace” at the end and we’ve got just a couple of minutes, I want to read a paragraph that you wrote and ask you how effective do you think it is to get people to read this? ”I ask you to reach down inside yourself and find the truth your life is compelling you to see, that as you rode to true peace, and it is the beginning of the evolution of human kind, because every change in the world starts within. It begins with one individual, who envisions his or her micro universe the way it can be and settles for nothing less. And as one individual moves toward the light, that light ignites more individual flames. And eventually, the revolutionary innerwork becomes a transformative outer work that builds into a bonfire of light, the kind of light that can change the world.”
LEWIS: I believe that. I believe that one solitary individual, committed to the way of peace, the way of love, the way of non-violence can change others, a community, a nation, a world. You have to you know, we used to sing the little song during the movement, this little light of mine, let it shine, I’m going to let it shine. We have to let our little light shine, not just in our little room, yes. Not just on Capitol Hill, yes, but in the larger world. And that’s what we must do as a nation.
Somehow, we got to humanize our politics. Just be human. Humanize our institution. It’s hard it’s difficult for elected officials to say, you know, I love you. Many of my colleagues in the Congress, I think people think it’s strange sometime, I refer to them as brother. Hi, my brother. How are you doing, my brother? How are you doing, sister? Because I see us as a family. And we have to be examples to the larger nation, to the American community, and to the world.
LAMB: You wrote about Spencer Bachus in here, Republican from Alabama.
LEWIS: He’s a wonderful human being.
LEWIS: He’s white, represent part of Birmingham, Alabama. I’ve heard him tell stories, wonderful stories about growing up, the role that his father played. We traveled together. Each year, when I take black and white members, Republicans and Democrats, liberals, conservative back to Alabama, he always hosts us. We travel together to India to remember the fifth anniversary of Dr. King’s trip to India.
And he’s my brother. He’s my friend. He’s more than a colleague.
LAMB: The name of the book, ”Across that Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change.” Our guest has been United States Congressman John Lewis. Thank you very much.
LEWIS: Thank you very much. It’s been an honor to be interviewed by you. Thank you.