The Genealogy of a Civil Rights Legend

I first “met” John Lewis in March, 1965. I was sitting in our living room, watching the nightly news with my mother and father. We were horrified: young black men and women were being beaten as they tried to cross a structure called “Pettus Bridge.” One of the leaders—and it turned out to be a young man named John Lewis—had been severely beaten. I marveled at his courage, and that of his fellow marchers. I wondered if I could ever summon that much courage to face police brutality in the name of a larger principle—the right of our people to vote. My own parents, and their parents and grandparents, had seemingly always had the right to vote in our little community in the hills of eastern West Virginia. My classmates and I were truly puzzled; what was this voting all about? Only later we would understand that the ballot, and the right to own property, were two fundamental principles upon which the American Republic was founded. Without one or the other, a person was doomed to second class status in relation to her or his fellow citizens. John Lewis knew that, and he risked his life to see that all black people would have the right to vote. 21 years later in 1986 he would be elected to represent Georgia’s 5th district in Atlanta, as their United States Congressman. “Only in America,” as Don King likes to say.

Civil Rights Leader John Lewis

Civil Rights Leader John Lewis

Congressman Lewis is the last of the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement which was headed by his hero, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. During our interview, he told me how they had met: as a teenager he wrote Dr. King a letter, and Dr. King responded by sending him a Greyhound bus ticket to visit him in Montgomery. I remember John’s speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the great March on Washington as if it were yesterday.

John Lewis is a hero to me, and being able to give him the gift of meeting his ancestors was a special honor.

I don’t want to give away any of the many surprises that we were able to share with the Congressman. I can, however, say that we have never had a guest in any of our series who was more grateful and moved by each genealogical detail. One particularly astonishing fact moved John to tears. So overcome with emotion, he lowered his head onto his “Book of Life,” and wept for the agony, the triumph, the will and the sacrifices of our slave ancestors. And I wept for him, and our ancestors, as well.