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A Hero of Our Time

WALKING WITH THE WIND: A Memoir of the Movement.\o7 By John Lewis with Michael D'Orso (Simon & Schuster: 496 pp., $26)\f7

June 14, 1998|JACK NELSON | Jack Nelson is the chief Washington correspondent for The Times. In the 1960s, he was the paper's Atlanta bureau chief and covered the civil rights movement

John Lewis was the first protester to disembark from a Freedom Ride bus in Montgomery, Ala., on May 20, 1960, to face hundreds of angry whites armed with baseball bats, bricks, pipes, tire irons and other weapons. They ran at the bus from all directions, screaming, "Get the niggers, get the niggers." Lewis was knocked cold by a burly white man swinging a wooden Coca-Cola crate.

Five years later, on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, in Selma, Ala., Lewis was leading a voting rights protest march of several hundred blacks across Edmund Pettus bridge when state troopers and mounted members of a sheriff's posse bore down on them, swinging clubs and firing tear gas. As the short, stocky Lewis knelt to pray, a trooper fractured his skull with a club.

Lewis used to say that lightning and snakes--those two great Southern bugaboos--were the only things he was afraid of. Journalists who covered civil rights demonstrations in the South in the 1960s didn't think John Lewis was afraid of anything. We used to joke that when a trooper swinging a billy club approached, John Lewis just bowed his head.

During the 1960s' demonstrations, Lewis was arrested at least 40 times and was beaten so often he lost count. No other civil rights leader suffered so much abuse over such a long period of time. And none of them--not even his idol, Martin Luther King Jr.--remained more dedicated to the principles of nonviolent protest against injustice.

A shy, humble man of deep convictions, Lewis lacked the charisma of such civil rights figures as King, Jesse Jackson, Julian Bond and Stokely Carmichael. Yet his compelling autobiography, "Walking With the Wind," helps us understand how this son of poor Alabama sharecroppers not only survived the turbulent '60s but rose to become a heroic figure and an influential member of Congress.

In his early days in the civil rights movement, Lewis felt he lacked leadership qualities and had no ambition to be a leader, but fellow students who admired his courage, outspokenness and dedication to nonviolence pushed him forward. His election in 1963 as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he frankly acknowledges, was due to no special leadership skills but to the fire he had been through up to that point, including 24 arrests.

A key figure in almost every major movement event of the '60s, Lewis repeatedly demonstrated a quiet determination that inspired thousands of other demonstrators during the Nashville sit-ins; the Freedom Rides; the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered a controversial speech; and the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march.

Born on a farm in poverty-stricken Pike County, Ala., Lewis was raised by simple, hard-working parents who were devout Baptists. John, the third of the 10 Lewis children, was more than a little eccentric. When he became deeply religious as a child, he used to preach to the chickens in his care, Bible in hand, he even presided over religious burials for those that died. At 16, he preached his first church sermon and became known as Pike County's "Boy Preacher."

Early on, he was outspoken about injustices he saw: the back-breaking work of picking cotton that his family endured for measly wages, the Jim Crow balcony for "colored" in the only theater in nearby Troy, the town's "whites-only" public library, and the rickety old public schools for blacks where textbooks, marked up and dogeared, had been handed down by white students.

Lewis began picking cotton when he was 8 years old. He hated it. But he loved school and took to heart his parents' admonition to "get an education so you won't have to do what we're doing." So when school was in session and despite his parents telling him they needed him to work in the cotton field, he would slip out of the house and run to the school bus. Despite repeated scoldings by his father, he stubbornly insisted on "going to school no matter what."

For Lewis and for civil rights, 1955 was a watershed year. It was the year after the Supreme Court school desegregation ruling and, with segregationists mounting massive resistance and King mounting the Montgomery bus boycott, the word "movement" first came into vogue. Lewis, 15 at the time, was "shaken to the core" when he heard about the lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago black killed while visiting relatives in Money, Miss. Till's crime? He had said "bye, baby" to a white woman clerk in a country store. Later, Lewis was enthralled upon hearing a King radio sermon. And in December of that year, the launching of the bus boycott after Rosa Parks was denied a seat in the front of a Montgomery bus changed Lewis' life "more than any event before or since."

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