WINDS OF CHANGE
July 7, 1998
David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, talks with Rep. John Lewis, author of Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. Lewis remembers his experiences on the streets and in jail during the civil rights movement. You can also ask Rep. Lewis about his experiences in an online forum.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
Rep. John Lewis responds to your questions and comments.
April 15, 1998:
Exerpts from a town meeting in Houston where President Clinton discussed race and sports.
March 2, 1998:
Have things improved or worsened since the Kerner Commission was released?
December 19, 1997:
President Clinton meets with conservative leaders to discuss his race initiative.
December 3, 1997:
President Clinton holds a town hall meeting to discuss his One America initiative.
December 2, 1997:
A report on a camp working to better relations between the races.
November 25, 1997:
Cornel West and the NewsHour historians discuss the importance of civic symbols.
September 30, 1997:
Presidential race advisers discuss Clinton's One America initiative.
September 25, 1997:
A look back at school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas 40 years ago.
October 10, 1997:
The President's race advisory panel on school desegregation.
July 4, 1997:
The Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook and Angela Oh respond to your questions on race relations.
May 20, 1997:
Betty Ann Bowser reports on the effects of dropping affirmative action programs in Texas universities.
April 9, 1997:
A federal court in California upholds a state ban on affirmative action programs.
Jan. 15, 1996:
Benjamin DeMott discusses his book The Trouble with Friendship: Why Americans Can't Think Straight about Race.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of Race Relations.
Visit the White House's
One America homepage.
Rep. John Lewis's Congressional Web site.
DAVID GERGEN: John Lewis, in weeks past, both David Halberstan and David Branch have talked about the 1960 Civil Rights movement and said that young blacks were the moving force of the movement. Without them, it never would have succeeded to the degree it did. You were there. You were one of those young blacks in Nashville, 1960. Tell us all about it. How did it start?
Behind the movement.
REP. JOHN LEWIS, Author, "Walking with the Wind:" David, I was there. I was very young. I had been deeply inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.. So when I arrived in Nashville as a student, I saw segregation, I saw racial discrimination, and I started attending some mass meetings, hearing Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders come there to speak, and then I started attending some non-violent workshops being conducted by a guy by the name of Jim Lawson.
And every Tuesday night for the entire school year at 6:30 pm a small group of us would make it down to a little Methodist church near Fish University in the heart of Nashville. We studied the great religions of the world.
We studied what Gandhi did in India, what he attempted to do in South Africa. We studied Thoreau and civil disobedience. We studied Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Montgomery movement. But, more than anything else, we studied Gandhi.
We studied Gandhi's principles of non-violence, his sole force, love in action, passive resistance. We were trained. We were disciplined. We have what we call role playing. It was black and white students were played a role of the white opposition, and then sometimes we would play that we were sitting at the lunch counter-sitting in at a restaurant-and we tested ourselves.
The Freedom Ride.
DAVID GERGEN: Tell us about the Freedom Ride. That was a bus ride.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, the Supreme Court had issued a decision banning segregation in areas of public transportation, and we decided to test that decision. Many of us had gone through the city where we had lighted cigarettes put out in our hair, down our backs, and we had been pulled off a lunch counter stool, because we had been beaten, but we were prepared to go on the freedom ride, little did we know as we boarded the two buses, a Trailway bus and a Greyhound bus, travel through Virginia and North Carolina and South Carolina, through Georgia, and then in Alabama, near Anniston, Alabama, between Birmingham and Atlanta, one of the buses burned, and we were beaten in Birmingham and later in Montgomery, and I was beaten and left lying in a pool of blood unconscious at the Greyhound Bus station in Montgomery by an angry mob.
DAVID GERGEN: How scared were you on that freedom ride?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: David, I was not scared. By the time of the freedom ride I had lost my sense of fear. I think many of us, many of the young people, black and white, that went on the freedom ride, we were prepared to die. We felt that violence must not stop, non-violence. We felt that this movement was so right, that it was so necessary. It was like a holy crusade.
Background to Bloody Sunday
DAVID GERGEN: But the highlight, it really seemed to me, the powerful climax of the civil rights movement, was for you and for others, came in Selma in 1965 on Bloody Sunday. Can you tell us about that?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, in Selma, Alabama, in March of 1965, about 600 of us decided to take a peaceful, orderly non-violent walk from Selma to Montgomery to dramatize to the nation that people of color wanted the right to vote, to participate in a democratic process. In Selma only 2.1 percent of blacks of voting age were registered to vote. You could only attempt to get in to take the so-called "literacy" test on the first and third Mondays of each month. And we all started walking in twos.
DAVID GERGEN: You were at the front of it.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: I was leading the march.
DAVID GERGEN: Brown-light tan raincoat-famous picture.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Brown raincoat. And I was carrying a backpack before it became fashionable for people to wear backpacks. And in this backpack I had two books, an apple, an orange. I had toothpaste and a toothbrush, because I thought we were going to be arrested and go to jail.
Leading the march.
DAVID GERGEN: So what happened?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: We got to the apex of the bridge. We looked down below-it was the Alabama River-and one of my co-leaders, Jose Williams, said to me, "John, can you swim," and I said, "No." I said, "Jose, can you swim?". He said, "No." I said, "We can't go behind-go backward. We're not jumping overboard, so we got to continue to walk." We continued to walk. We saw Alabama state troopers.
DAVID GERGEN: On the other side of the bridge.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: On the other side at the foot of the bridge we saw Sheriff Clark, the sheriff of Dallas County in Selma, with his posse. We saw men on horseback, and we heard a man say, Major John Clough, of the Alabama State troopers, it is an unlawful march, and I give you three minutes to disperse, and return to your church. In less than a minute and a half he said, "Troopers advance." And these men came toward us, beating us with nightsticks, bullwhips, trampling us with horses.
DAVID GERGEN: They were on horseback.
"I thought that day I was going to die. I think I saw death."
REP. JOHN LEWIS: They were on horses, and they trampled us. They used tear gas. And that day became known as "Bloody Sunday." David, to this day I was beaten, I had a concussion-but to this day I don't know how I made it back across that bridge, crossing the Alabama River, back through the streets of Selma, back to the church. I don't recall, but I was knocked unconscious, I had a concussion, but somebody apparently gave me a lift or carried me somehow in some way. I wish 33 years later that I knew the person or persons just to say thank you. But I thought that day I was going to die. I think I saw death.
DAVID GERGEN: John, where does courage come from?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: I'm not so sure. I think you have to be prepared and be willing to place yourself in the way and be guided by what I like to call the spirit of history. I feel more than lucky. I feel very blessed that I had an opportunity to be caught up in something with a group of courageous young men and women and some not so young that were prepared and willing to put their bodies on the line to make our country, especially in the southern part of America, something different and something better.
"Hate is too heavy a burden to bear."
DAVID GERGEN: I found it remarkable in your book and, indeed, in your conversation today how little hate there is. You never expressed a word of hatred for those who were beating you.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, hate is too heavy a burden to bear. And if you accept nonviolence as a way of life, as a way of living, then you must be true, you must be consistent, because if you only accept nonviolence as a technique or as a tactic, you become like a faucet.
You can turn it on and turn it off. You have to go around deciding who you're going to hate and who you're going to love today, who you're going to like or dislike, and I can truly say that I don't have any ill feeling or malice or hatred toward anyone that attacked me or had me arrested or jailed during that period. I saw the men and women that engaged in the violence and the mob, whether it was a Bull Connor in Birmingham or a Sheriff Clark in Selma, as victims. We all were victims.
DAVID GERGEN: Selma, of course, led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and many other changes. You speak in the book frequently about a notion from Martin Luther King that moved you so much in those days, a notion of "beloved community." What has happened to the beloved community in America today?
REP. JOHN LEWIS: We have not yet created the beloved community. I think that idea, it's still in the process of becoming. But we cannot give up on it, and some people will say that the idea of the beloved community, the idea of an inter-racial democracy, the idea of integrationist stuff some people will say it's old fashioned, it's obsolete, it is out of date, but I consider it one of those immutable principles that we shouldn't give up, we shouldn't deviate from it. We have an obligation, I think, as Americans, to create one family, one house, one community, an American community, the American house, the American family.
DAVID GERGEN: The mayor of Selma, who was there 33 years ago, now calls you a national hero. You're a very modest man, so I won't ask you to respond, but I would like to say, John Lewis, thank you.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, thank you very much, David. Thank you.