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John Lewis

On Fighting Without Bitterness for an Interracial Democracy

July 26, 1998|Robert Scheer | Robert Scheer, a contributing editor to The Times, is a columnist for the Op-Ed page

Recorded history is cruel in its indifference to the struggles of ordinary folks, and the unassuming heroes are the first to be forgotten. On a recent visit to the Westside office of The Times, not a one among the dozen young reporters working at their computers could place the gentle but solidly built middle-aged black man who had shown up for this interview. Although he has been a U.S. congressman representing Atlanta for the past 10 years, married and with a college-age, John Lewis, 58, an effective legislator, does not work at grabbing the national spotlight.

But during the turbulent days of the 1960s civil-rights struggle, his image, bloodied, skull-fractured, crumpled, pounded to the ground by goons wearing state trooper badges in Selma, Ala., as he attempted to lead a peaceful march, made him a worldwide symbol of resistance.

The unofficial designation of "saint" came to be used by many who observed him in action. He was fearless without the slightest trace of bravado, committed to the struggle without ever being divisive and though he emerged as the most impressive of the young people who rallied to the call of Martin Luther King Jr., he remains to this day, as in the pages of his new book, totally self-effacing.

In 1966, Lewis was ousted as head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee by the more militant Stokely Carmichael and his fellow advocates of Black Power. But this sharecroppers' son from the deeply segregated rural South dared with unflinching equanimity to assert the goal of racial integration and the necessity of nonviolence as the only fit means toward that end.

While the idealistic student movement he loved and led disintegrated into factionalism, Lewis spent the next decade leading an organizing effort that registered 4 million new voters in the South, many of them blacks voting for the first time. His primary emphasis, as was King's, was on enfranchising the poor of all races. His new memoir, "Walking with the Wind," is a tale of continuing commitment, personal and heroic, to make the promise of American democracy a reality. But more than that, it is a testament to the beauty as well as the necessity of the goal of integration, economic as well as social. Here is a man who refuses to accept distinctions of color or class, who will not let go of the ideal of an all-inclusive "Beloved Community," and who refuses to let hate win out.

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Question: What's the main reason for writing this memoir 30 years after the stormy struggle to end racial segregation?

Answer: I wanted to give a source of inspiration to young people and those not so young who maybe don't remember the struggles of the civil-rights movement. And hopefully, it would inspire people to act again, to move. I don't like what I see happening in America. I want people to know that during another period, we did have people working together across racial lines, blacks and whites, putting their bodies on the line. A lot people think the civil-rights movement was just a black movement, but a lot of white people came South. The Jewish community played a major role in helping. Countless blacks and whites sacrificed. I think in America we're losing that sense of caring, that sense of sharing, that sense that we're in this thing together. If we lose that, we don't have much left as a nation.

Q: What was the racial reality of Troy, Ala., when you were in school?

A: It was a one-room schoolhouse. First through the sixth grade, with a big pot-belly stove in the center of the room to heat the place. We didn't have indoor plumbing. Didn't have running water. As far back as I can remember, I saw the signs that said, "White men," "Colored men," "White women," "Colored women." In the five-and-ten-cent store, there was a little fountain saying, "White," "Colored." The drug store, we could get a Coca-Cola syrup and water, and we would have to come out on the street to drink it. We couldn't sit at the lunch counter. I would go downtown to the little theater with my brothers and sisters and we would pay our money. Then we would have to come out of the theater and go up on the outside to the balcony. And all the young white kids went downstairs to the first floor. So, as a young child, I tasted the bitter fruits of racism. And I didn't like it.

Q: When was your first sense of the civil-rights movement?

A: When I first heard of Dr. King. I was 15, in the 10th grade. Before then, I tried to go and check a book out of the county library. And I was told that colored people couldn't use the library. I was about 10, maybe 11 or 12. But I went back there recently for a book signing and they gave me a library card. I'm gonna frame it. And the black and white citizens of this little town all showed up.

Q: When you were 10, was there another library for "colored" people?

A: No. And the lone white library was supported by all of us taxpayers.

Q: What did you think, that was just the order of things?

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