John Lewis and “Life Lessons”

4 Jan
John Lewis in "Eyes on the Prize"
John Lewis in “Eyes on the Prize”

Representative John Lewis published a book last year, Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for ChangeThe book is a memoir which also offers advice to current activists including members of the Occupy Movement. Lewis became involved with the civil rights movement as a teenager after hearing Martin Luther King, Jr. speak on the radio at the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. He went on to be one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and participated in many marches and protests.

Lewis was interviewed for both Eyes on the Prize I and II. In these extensive interviews he speaks about his upbringing in rural Alabama, how he became involved in the civil rights movement, his participation in the Nashville sit-ins and the Freedom Rides, and his meetings with Malcolm X.

In this quote from his interview in Eyes on the Prize I, Lewis spoke of his desire to become a minister as a young boy,

 We had a lot of chickens. And I grew up with this idea, somehow, I don’t know where it came from, I wanted to be a minister, and somehow I transferred my desire to be a minister and my responsibility of raising the chickens…and I literally started preaching to the chickens. They became members of this sort of invisible church…Later I tested some ideas on my younger brothers or sisters and first cousins and I remember my first act of maybe a nonviolent protest was when my parents would kill the chicken, that I would refuse to eat the chicken. And it went for two or three days–refusing to speak to my mother, father–because they killed a chicken, that I thought was so wrong.

Interview with John Lewis from Eyes on the Prize I

As a young man, Lewis was involved with almost every major moment in the movement, including the first sit-ins in Nashville, the Selma to Montgomery March where he was attacked by state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, to speaking at the March on Washington, and participating in the Freedom Rides. Throughout it all and in the face of physical violence and intimidation, he maintained his philosophy of nonviolence. Speaking about his time as a student in Nashville, Lewis described how the first sit-ins occurred,

 So every Tuesday night for an entire semester in 1959 we had what we call, nonviolent workshop, direct action workshop, where we discussed and debated the theory, the philosophy of Gandhi, the teaching of Gandhi, the whole question of civil disobedience, the whole history of the struggle in India, and the attempt on the part of Gandhi to bring about some resolution of the problems in South Africa.

We went into the local stores, for the most part, the Five-and-Ten, Woolworth, Kreske’s, McClellan…we took our seats in a very orderly, peaceful fashion. The students were dressed like they were on the way to, to church or going to a big social affair. But they had their books, and we stayed there at the lunch counter studying and preparing our homework because we were denied service. The manager ordered that the lunch counters be closed, that the restaurants be closed, and we’d just sit there, and we continued to sit all day long. The first day nothing in term of violence or any disorder, nothing happened. This continued for a few more days and it continued day in and day out. And finally, on one Saturday when we had about 100 students prepare to go down, it was a very beautiful day in Nashville, very beautiful day, we got a call from a local white minister who had been a real supporter of the movement. He said that if we go down on this particular day he understand [sic] that the police would stand to the side and let a group of white hoodlums and thugs come in and beat people up, and then we would be arrested. And we should make a decision of whether we wanted to go or not and some people tried to discourage us from going on that particular Saturday. We made a decision to go, and we all went to the same store. It was Woolworth in downtown Nashville, in the heart of the downtown area, and occupied every seat at the lunch counter, every seat in the restaurant, and it did happen. A group of young white men came in and they start pulling and beating, primarily the young women, putting lighted cigarettes down their backs, in their hair and really beating people, and in a short time police officials came in and placed all of us under arrest, and not a single member of the white group–the people that were opposing our sit-in down at the lunch counter–were arrested. We all left out of that store singing “We Shall Overcome.” This was the first arrest in the Nashville sit-in. It was the first mass arrest, I think, anyplace in the South.

Interview with John Lewis from Eyes on the Prize I

Lewis’ interview from Eyes on the Prize II is also available online, along with the complete interviews from Eyes on the Prize I and II.

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