Interviewing Congressman John Lewis

If you think it’s tricky to find the perfect time to schedule an interview with a celebrity (in between shooting a movie or a TV show, attending premiere parties, making the rounds on talk shows, and hosting fundraising galas for their favorite good cause) think about how much harder it is to settle on a date and time with someone who also has to vote in halls of Congress! That’s how it was trying to book the Congressman representing Atlanta since 1986: John Lewis. He has famously never missed a vote and regardless of how much he wanted to learn about his roots from our host, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., he wasn’t about to start now!

I was a bit overwhelmed by the idea of meeting Representative John Lewis – a living legend. But after reading his impassioned memoir Walking with the Wind, in which he writes of his transformation from humble beginnings to renowned Civil Rights leader, I somehow felt like I already knew him. He has led an illustrious career as a Civil Rights leader: he created the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he integrated lunch counters in Nashville, TN, he spearheaded the Freedom Rides throughout the South, he spoke at the historic March on Washington in 1963 at the age of 23, and perhaps most famously, he led 600 peaceful marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge only to be attacked mercilessly by Alabama state troopers on Bloody Sunday, 1965. More than 40 arrests later, Lewis continues to build a truly integrated “Beloved Community” through his work as Senior Chief Deputy Whip for the Democratic Party and continues to struggle for voting rights.  I felt thrilled and honored to have the opportunity to hear him talk about his life and family firsthand.

Congressman John Lewis on Finding Your Roots

When he arrived on location at a townhouse we rented a few blocks from the Capitol, he was kind and patient while we made last minute lighting adjustments. One of his assistants took me aside and told me that Congressman Lewis had been working since 5am and hadn’t had time to eat yet that day (it was now 11:30am). I offered bagels, an assortment of sandwiches, cookies and fruit. Yes, a banana would be perfect and half of a turkey sandwich would make a good snack during an interview break. Another member of his staff pointed at his watch, reminding me that a vote might be called within the hour. In such a case, the Congressman would have to leave within 15 minutes. With that, we began to take Congressman Lewis on a journey back in time.

Dr. Gates showed John Lewis records that documented the tremendous lives of his ancestors who were born into slavery and died land-holding free people. This was one of the most moving interviews that I have ever witnessed. I believe it was as enlightening and powerful for the production team in the room as it was for the Congressman himself, and as it will be for PBS viewers.

Watch the full Finding Your Roots episode: John Lewis and Cory Booker.


Julia Marchesi is a Director and Producer for Finding Your Roots.