The American Civil Rights Movement has inspired people across the world to stand up for social justice. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia was one of the leaders of that movement in the 1960s. He was arrested more than 40 times, physically attacked and jailed in the fight for desegregation. But he says “there is a unique hostility today that almost seems worse” than what he experienced. He calls on the Occupy Movement, the Arab Spring and other grassroots leaders to focus on the nonviolent principles that propelled his generation: Faith, patience, study, truth, peace and love. Lewis offers lessons on freedom and how to bring about change.
- Rep. John Lewis Democratic Congressman representing Georgia's 5th District and author of "Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of a Movement"
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from the book “Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change” by Congressman John Lewis. Copyright © 2012 John Lewis. Published by Hyperion. Reprinted here by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Historian Douglas Brinkley says Congressman John Lewis is that most rare of politicians. He draws the respect of every colleague on both sides of the partisan aisle. The recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Congressman Lewis has represented Georgia's Fifth Congressional District since 1986. In a new book titled "Across that Bridge," Congressman Lewis draws on lessons learned as a leader of the civil rights movement in the '60s, to inspire today's grass roots activists fighting for social, economic and political change.
MS. DIANE REHMCongressman Lewis joins me in the studio. You're welcome to be part of the conversation. Call us on 800-433-8850. As always, send your email to email@example.com. Feel free to join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, sir.
REP. JOHN LEWISGood morning, Diane. I'm happy to be with you this morning.
REHMAnd I'm so happy to have you here. In the introduction to your book, you say we've come a great distance as a society, but we still have a great distance to go. You say there is a unique hostility in these times that almost seems worse to me than what we experienced in the 1960s. Explain what you mean.
LEWISDiane, what I try to suggest that in these times, in these days that we live, something is going wrong in our society. We're so mean to each other. We don't know how to forgive and just move ahead. We don't know how to say I'm sorry, excuse me, pardon me. Sometimes I wonder whether it's in the water we drink or in the air we breathe or in the food we eat. Maybe just maybe the larger society should take a lesson from the civil rights movement.
LEWISWe believed in the way of peace, in the way of love, in the way of nonviolent, and some of the people that attacked me and beat me during the '60s have come up and said, I'm sorry, will you forgive me. And they cry, they hug me, I cry and hug them back. These are the little lessons that the book tries to talk about -- speak about. Even at the highest level of our government, you see members of the Congress putting down other members, putting down the President of the United States. We're better people than that.
REHMDo you think that when Barack Obama was elected president our hopes were too high?
LEWISI don't think that when President Barack Obama was elected that our hope was too high. His election, in spite of all of us, it lift our dreams, our aspirations, and we should embrace it even today and just think of the distance, the progress we've made, and do what we can to see that this president succeeds. And if he succeeds, if he continues, then America will continue to succeed and maybe emerge as the hope of people from around the world.
REHMBut surely you're not saying that if President Obama loses the election that America would not continue to move forward.
LEWISIt is my hope and my prayer that America will continue to move forward whatever happens, but I think there's greater possibility that the country will move forward, and the American people will move forward, with the reelection of President Barack Obama. When this president was reelected -- well, first elected, I should say, he inspired people not only in America, but all over the world, and we should embrace it. Sometimes when I travel to Europe or Africa or to Asia, it seems like there's a greater sense of hope and support in other parts of the land, other parts of the world than here in America for this president.
REHMThat's an interesting point to make. It would seem that every time I talk with a former politician, a former member of Congress, they've said to me that part of the reason they voluntarily left is that Capitol Hill is no longer a place where people can come together to do the best for America, that they come together now across lines in hostility. Why has that happened?
LEWISI truly believe that something happened a few short years ago when my fellow Georgian became the speaker of the house, Mr. Gingrich. I think he led the House in a different direction, led us to a different place. When I first came to Congress, I came and Tom Foley was the speaker. Tip O'Neill was the outgoing speaker, and it was a different climate, a different environment that people did meet. We did have bipartisan bills on the floor and they passed. Today we seldom do anything in a bipartisan fashion. That's not good.
LEWISThat's not good for America. That's not good for our society. Members of Congress, like the president, we should be leaders. We should be symbols. We should be examples for the American people.
REHMAnd when you say it goes back to Newt Gingrich, who is still very much on the scene, what do you mean? What happened? What was it that went into the water or the air at that time?
LEWISWell, I think the well was poisoned. It was poisoned that we would do everything possible to win and win at any cost. We would destroy you the same way they tried to destroy President Clinton, and they didn't stop until they had a victory, until they took over the majority in the House and they want to win the White House back at any cost. And we must not let that happen. I fear for the future of our country. There's so much money being spent, and there are going to be more millions and billions of dollars will be spent. Our election become an auction and it will go to the highest bidder.
REHMDo you think that's happening now?
LEWISOh, I think we are in the midst of it all. It's obscene. It’s dangerous to the future of the republic for us to let this happen.
REHMJohn Lewis, he is United States Congressman from Georgia's Fifth District. He has been a member of Congress since 1986. His new book is titled "Across that Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change." Do join us, 800-433-8850. I have the feeling you had a particular bridge in mind when you titled that book.
LEWISWell, you're right. You did have a feeling -- a good feeling. I did have a bridge in mind. I had the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in mind. It was 47years ago that a group of us attempted to walk across that bridge to dramatize to the nation and to the world that people of color wanted to register to vote. We didn't know what was gonna happen. We thought we would be arrested and jailed, but we were beaten, tear gassed, bullwhipped, trampled by horses. I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a billy club and had a concussion there on the bridge. I thought I was going to die.
LEWISI thought I saw death. I thought it was the last non-violent protest for me. But because of what happened there, we didn't give up. We didn't give in. We kept the faith, we kept our eyes on the prize, and there was a sense of righteous indignation all across America when they heard about what happened on radio or saw it on television or read it in their newspapers. The American people were moved. The president acted, and the Congress acted, and we got the voting rights in 1965.
REHMAnd now that Voting Rights Act is in some ways being challenged.
LEWISWell, the Voting Rights Act is being challenged. There are people that want to undo the Act. I had a colleague from my state of Georgia just a few weeks ago had an amendment on the floor to prohibit the Department of Justice for using any money to enforce one section of the Voting Rights Act. That was gonna take us back, and even now, all these many years later, more than 30 states have introduced legislation, and several of the states passed legislation to make it more difficult, to make it almost impossible for many people to register to vote.
LEWISMore than three million people showed up at the polls at the last national election, and they were turned away. More than fifty million of our citizens are not even registered to vote. So for young people, seniors, it's hard -- it'll be difficult.
REHMJohn Lewis, member of the United States Congress from the Fifth District in Georgia. His new book is titled "Across That Bridge." We'll take a short break here and when we come back, we'll talk further and take your calls.
REHMAnd welcome back. Congressman John Lewis from Georgia is with me this morning. We're talking about his brand new book. It's titled "Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change." Do join us by phone, by email. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. You know, we talk an awful lot in this country about voting and the people who do vote, the people who don't vote, the people who now cannot vote. But do you believe we do get the leaders we deserve?
LEWISSometimes I feel like we can do better, that we can do much better, but we must open up the political process and let all of the people come in. It doesn't matter whether they're black or white, Latino or Asian American or Native American, whether they are young or middle age or older, whether they are straight or gay. We need to make it as simple as possible for people to be able to participate. The right to vote is precious. It's almost sacred. People die for that right. And we just need to let people participate.
REHMHow would you feel about the introduction and the support for a third party in this country?
LEWISWell, I happen to believe in the Democratic Party. I'm a member of the Democratic Party. But if people want to go out and organize a third party -- a third, fourth, they have the right to do it. Whatever they do, they should do it in a peaceful, nonviolent, orderly fashion and recreate a truly multiracial democratic society. But we shouldn't be going around putting people down because of their age, race, class. We must respect the dignity and the worth of every human being and everybody must be included.
REHMWe have an email here from Alex who wants to know "your feelings regarding the African American community's overall opposition to gay marriage. By definition, gay rights are civil rights. I'm sure you remember the days when intermarriage between the races was a controversial issue."
LEWISI take a position similar to a position that Martin Luther King, Jr. took many, many years ago, that races don't fall in love and get married. Individuals fall in love and get married. So if two men or two women fall in love and want to get married, they should be able to do just that. No government, state or federal, should tell people who they can fall in love with and get married or not.
LEWISAnd I also take the position that I fought too long and too hard against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up and fight against discrimination based on sexual orientation. And I think many members of the African American community and a great majority would come to that point very soon for they will learn they will be -- embrace marriage equality. You cannot build a wall when it comes to equality. It must be equality for all and not just for some.
REHMWhat about the ministers of the African American church and their opposition? How does one bring them along? How do you see their conversion, if you will?
LEWISWell, I think it's important for those of us who support marriage equality to continue to talk with these ministers, continue to educate them, to inform them. I've long held this position and I attend a lot of churches in my district in Georgia. And not one minister ever said anything to me about my position. They all support me.
REHMWell, it's certainly created a great deal of discussion so we'll see where that goes. We have lots of callers here. 800-433-8850. Let's go to Indianapolis. Good morning, Bill. You're on the air.
BILLGood morning, Diane. Hi, Congressman.
BILLI just wanted to ask you two quick things. Being from Georgia, have you had any interaction or did you during the '60s, '70s with a place in southwest Georgia that's kind of underreported in the civil rights movement known as Koinonia Farms?
LEWISOh, yes. I had a great deal of reaction -- just a great deal -- I visited Koinonia Farm. It was this little community in southwest Georgia right outside of Americus, Georgia in Sumter County near where President Carter grew up. And it was like what I would call the essence of the beloved community. And the story of Koinonia Farm is an untold story. I remember going there, talking with people and meeting with people on several occasions.
BILLAnd just secondly real quick, could you speak briefly about my personal hero who you just mentioned, the 39th President of the United States who stood up during this period for civil rights, an area, as you well know, from Albany to Americus that was so difficult. Could you talk just briefly about President Carter and what he's personally meant to you?
LEWISWell, President Carter has always acted according to his faith. He's a person of tremendous faith and he believes that we all are brothers and sisters, that we're one people, we're one family with one house. And he embraced the people that he grew up with, the black people in the community or Sumter County and Americus and Plains. And he's just one of these rare human beings and he doesn't get the credit that he should be receiving.
REHMThanks for calling. And to Troy, Mich. Good morning, Alex. You're on the air.
ALEXGood morning. Good morning, Congressman Lewis.
ALEXI just wanted to call in and say that you're an inspiration to me, particularly in my generation. And I'd just like to say that my generation does seem to be faltering a bit, but I'm doing my best to tell my friends and people of my generation of the work that you've done, you know, for me particularly as an Asian American, how much you...
REHMAlex, Alex I'd be interested to know when you say you see your generation faltering a bit, what do you mean?
ALEXI feel like there is a lot of narcissism and I feel like -- I think we've overcome a lot of racial barriers, but I feel like a lot of arrogance is still carried through from the '60s to now. It's not as prevalent as before, but I feel like it's still underlining my generation particularly. Just the way we -- particularly how everything's -- everyone's reacted towards the Trayvon Lewis (sic) incident in Florida. And I've thought more people would be united like, you know, young adults. A young adult was murdered, but there's so much divide and I was surprised.
REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for calling.
LEWISWell, thank you so much. I just have this strange feeling -- and one reason for writing this book "Across That Bridge" is to say to this generation of young people and people not so young that you too can be out there. Just have the feeling that people need to know the lessons that we learn and what we try to do just try to help a little bit.
LEWISBut people just too quiet. You don't have to be president of the United States. Be a lawyer. Be a great teacher. Study and be prepared to come together as a powerful nonviolent force to bring about change. Do what I call find a way to get in the way. Find a way to make a way out of no way. People need to be brave and courageous and speak up when you see something that is not right. Speak up when you see something that is not fair or just. Speak up and then move your feet, make some noise.
REHMWhat was your reaction to the Trayvon Martin case?
LEWISWhen I saw and read what happened and how it happened, it made me very sad. It reminded me of Emmett Till in 1955 in the State of Mississippi. But at the same time, I had what I call an executive session with myself. I said, I'm not going to become bitter, I'm not going to become hostile. I'm going to continue to speak about the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence.
REHMYou have to, of course, have all the facts. And as , we still don't seem to have all the facts regarding George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin, what really happened.
LEWISDiane, you're so right. You know, before we went on any protests, before we had a march, a sit-in, before we went on the freedom ride, we got the facts. We studied. We prepared ourselves. And that's what we need. We need to have all of the facts.
REHMAnd surely that's got to be one of the life lessons that you talk about in "Across the Bridge."
LEWISWell, in "Across the Bridge" one of the life lessons is study. Study. Before we started sitting in more than 50 years ago, we studied what Gandhi attempted to do in South Africa, what he accomplished in India. We studied what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was all about in Montgomery and Rosa Park was all about. We studied Thoreau in civil disobedience. So you have to be prepared. You have to be grounded. And then you get out and act.
REHMWho do you see as some of the most promising young African American leaders today?
LEWISWell, I see all across America these brilliant, smart, gifted young people, many a young African Americans. But as young white Americans, as young Latinos and young Asian Americans and Native -- they're just wonderful. I just returned from attending graduation of some of the leading colleges and universities in America. And to see these young people -- I shouldn't get into name -- I shouldn't start calling colleges and universities, but they understand. They understand.
LEWISI went to Penn. I was at Penn. I went to University of New Hampshire Law School, the University of Connecticut Law School. I was at Harvard. I was at Brown University. And these young people, they get the message of the civil rights movement. These are going to be the leaders of the 21st century.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." One of the leaders today Newark, N.J. mayor Cory Booker got himself into a little kerfuffle with the White House over his statements regarding the issue of Bain Capital and whether that should be an issue in the discussion between President Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney. What was your reaction to that?
LEWISWell, I was surprised at the statement and discussion of Mayor Booker. I know the mayor.
REHMWe've had him on the program.
LEWISHe's a wonderful...
LEWIS...smart, gifted young man. And he probably misspoke. He just made a mistake. And he is one of the leaders, one of the bright leaders for the future.
LEWISHe's a leader today and he will be a great leader tomorrow.
REHMYou think he simply made a mistake and then had to backtrack.
LEWISHe had to backtrack. He was going down the wrong path and he recognized that.
REHMWhat do you think of a new poll suggesting that there is a racial divide when it comes to who voters trust with their economic futures?
LEWISI think in America there's still a racial divide. We're not there yet. We are not there yet. We made a lot of progress but we still have a great distance to go. People shouldn't judge individuals on the basis of race or color. They're able, reliable, well-learned men and women of color. They could be African American, they could be Latino, they could be Asian American and Native American. We need people who have ability and capacity to lead.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Seattle, Wash. Good morning, Kareem, you're on the air.
KAREEMGood morning, Ms. Diane.
REHMGood morning, sir.
KAREEMThank you, thank you very much. And also good morning to Congressman Lewis.
KAREEMGood morning, sir. I just want to be brief here and just start out by thanking you for your service. I’m a direct recipient of your struggle, your courage, your love. And I was also -- wanted to talk to you and see what you thought about the generation after your movement and how just with the freedom how open their hearts and their minds became from the past. But still today not receiving the proper education to help them mold our new vision of ourselves and the way the country can be. Today, we are still racially divided although we work together and we go to school and we play, but our hearts and our minds still seem to be from the past. And I just want to thank you, sir. I want to tell you God bless you and family and I love you dearly.
LEWISWell, thank you so much, sir. Thank you for the very kind words. I still think in spite of all the progress and in spite of all of the changes that we've made we need to still confront the issue of class and race. There's still too many people in our society that have been left out and left behind. They're all not African American. You just travel to some other part. You visit the reservations, the way Native Americans have been treated. You go into the southwest. You go into the large urban centers. You go to Appalachia and see how many of our white brothers and sisters are living.
LEWISAnd as a country, as a society we can do better. We can do much better. In my own view there needs to be what I like to call a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas, how we treat all of our citizens, all of our brothers and sisters. You know, I talk about being in one house, one family and I still believe that. We all live in the same house.
REHMJohn Lewis, Congressman from Georgia. His new book is titled "Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change." Short break and we'll be right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Congressman John Lewis of Georgia is with me. He was actually born in Alabama. He does go back to his home in Georgia probably every weekend. His wife, his family are there. His new book is titled "Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change." Here's a question for you from Brian, who says, "The right to vote is so critically important in our nation. Why do so many citizens choose not to vote in our elections?"
LEWISBrian, I cannot agree with you more. The right to vote is so important. To vote is the most precious instrument we have in a democratic society. It's almost sacred. It's the most -- it is the thing that controls everything that we do from the time that we're born until the time that we die in democratic society. I think there's a feeling on the part of some Americans that they don't have anyone to vote for or they don't have anything to vote for. It's this feeling that I've been down so long and to down and get me down. If we have to find a way to say to people if you don't vote, you don't count. It doesn't matter whether you're a billionaire, a millionaire or whether you're middle income or low income, we all have one vote. And you have to use that vote.
REHMAnd just to follow up on that, Doug in New York wants to know how you would detail a plan to significantly shrink the gap between the wealthy and the middle and the lower classes of our country.
LEWISA very simple plan is that we put everybody to work, everybody. Create jobs for every person who would like to work. We can go back to where President Roosevelt left off and start a massive, a massive public work program.
REHMNow, hasn't that been before this Congress?
LEWISWe've had job's proposal introduced. The president has introduced job proposals to Democrats. But we don't control the majority in the House. And in the Senate it gets the filibuster. People voted against everything that the Democrats had proposed and everything that this president has proposed.
REHMIf you could, would you do away with the filibuster?
LEWISIf I could, the filibuster would be goodbye. It would be gone. And I along with seven other members of Congress, we have followed suit to declare the filibuster unconstitutional.
REHMBut haven't Democrats used the filibuster?
LEWIS...have used the filibuster, but it's time for us to say that it should be no more.
LEWISLet the people decide, let a simple vote decide the issues.
REHMAnd here is a question from Rye, N.H. Donna says, "I wonder what place race played into the Republican Congress, what they said about defeating the new president as their first priority at the beginning of President Obama's term."
LEWISI would like to think, I really would like to think maybe, just maybe that race did not play a role. But there's not much going on in America that say that this president, here and there, that this president is not one of us, that he's not a citizen. And I think it's this fear with a growing and changing population that in a matter of a few short years African American, the Latino population and the Asian American population and the Native American population will make a majority of the population. So people fear, they fear the future. What we need to do is to embrace it and not be afraid.
REHMAll right. To Fort Worth, Texas. Good morning, Tommy.
TOMMYGood morning, Diane. How are you?
REHMFine, thank you, sir.
TOMMYThank you for taking my call.
TOMMYCongressman John Lewis, wow, what an honor and a privilege. You are an inspiration to my life. God bless you this morning. I had a question. Even as you were facing the dogs and facing the, I mean, segregation and having your right denied and everything, I find today that we're faced with a greater challenge than that, and it comes at the hand -- at the fact that the number of cause of death in America for a black American is abortion. We are not even meeting in many places in your own state of Georgia, your own home state, a replacement birth rate.
TOMMYBlacks are aborting at five times the rate of whites. So we are being devastated to the point where voting will not make any difference, rights will not make any difference if we don't have life. What are some things that you are planning to do? I picket an abortion clinic four times a week here in the city of Fort Worth. But what are some of the things that you are planning to do or that you have been doing or that you would like to see done beginning at home in Georgia and then to introduce in Congress for the rest of the nation?
LEWISMy brother, I appreciate your concern. I appreciate your comments. My position is very, very simple. It is left up to the woman and her family, her doctor to make the decision. Her conscience, her God, no state, no government, federal or state, should tell a woman what she can or cannot do with her body.
REHMThanks for your call, Tommy. Let's go to Esa in Annapolis, Md. Good morning to you.
ESAGood morning, Diane. Good morning, Congressman Lewis. In my country of birth, we call you honorable as you're a member of parliament from Sierra Leone.
ESAYes. In regards to us having an African American president and the congressional black caucus, I was hoping that the president and that caucus would seize the opportunity to engage with African countries in trade agreements and mineral (word?) that might be important for United States. And also the other question is, this will be quick, as far as coming from other countries giving birth to our children in the United States being American citizens, would they undergo this (unintelligible) that Romney and the rest of the Republican party who are (unintelligible) are our children gonna be going through this, and what should we do in order not to go through what Barack Obama, our president, is going through today?
LEWISWell, I think, first of all, the president, the congressional black caucus and many other members of the Congress, especially (unintelligible), have always been supportive of trade relations with Africa, countries in Africa and other parts of the world. I think what the president and others are going through would encounter the whole question of whether there's legal, born here or not born here, you know, it's shameful. It is a disgrace and we need to just stop it, just stop it. It's just dumb.
LEWISYou know, during the '60s, the late A. Philip Randolph used to say when people talk about where people are from, he say, well, maybe our foremothers and our forefathers all came to this great land in different ships, we all in the same boat now. So this country is a country of immigrants. We all come from some other parts of the world. So let's make people that are illegal legal. In my book there's no such thing as an illegal human being. We all are legal.
REHMAnd to, pardon me, Wayne in Virginia. Good morning to you.
WAYNEGood morning. Thanks for taking my call.
WAYNEI'm gonna go on the opposite side of the aisle for a little bit. I take a little bit of -- I guess I get a little bit bristled when I hear the congressman speak in such eloquent tones today of how we should be more civil and less divisive, et cetera, et cetera. But yet then he speaks of his unbridled support of Mr. Obama and then yet Mr. Obama goes out and says the GOP want to poison your air, poison your water, throw grandma off the cliff and that's okay. So I can only assume that Mr. Lewis agrees with that assessment and doesn't say anything about it.
WAYNEAnd also when speaking of the congressional black caucus in reference to Treyvon Martin, they said nothing during the whole episode or when it first hit the papers of let's let the legal system work, let's see where the evidence comes down. The only thing I heard was condemning Mr. Zimmerman as a racist, a thug, a murderer. When in fact, a lot of the evidence has shown exactly the opposite, that he has been tutoring blacks, that he has been bending over backwards to help them. And then all of a sudden, it shows that he's getting -- he did get beat up.
WAYNESo, you know, what Mr. Lewis is saying today just really does not match up with the rhetoric that I've heard from him over the last few years. And let's go back to the march through the middle of the Tea Party rally in 2010 where the accusations were that they had racial slurs thrown at them, but in this digital age, there was not a single picture, not a single recording of any racial slurs during that entire time.
LEWISWell, sir, let me just respond by saying I believe that we should let the legal system work. We should get all of the facts. Throughout my career, I have never referred to anyone as a racist or as a thug. I respect the dignity and the words of every, every human being. People who even beaten me, left me bloody and unconscious, I've been able to forgive and move on. It's been a part of my makeup. Thank you.
REHMDid the congressional black caucus come out with statements regarding the shooting, the killing of Treyvon Martin?
LEWISI don't think the black caucus issued any statement concerning the Treyvon Martin shooting. Individuals, members of the caucus, like other members of Congress and other black leaders took position, but I don't think the black caucus took a position.
REHMAnd do you agree with our caller that racial slurs were never...
LEWISNo, I do not agree because some members did hear racial slurs and people were calling people names.
REHMYou heard that yourself?
LEWISI certainly did.
REHMThanks for calling, Wayne. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Columbus, Ohio. Good morning, David.
DAVIDWhat I -- go ahead.
REHMGo right ahead, sir.
DAVIDWhat I wanted to call about is when I teach media history, we talk about the coverage of Pettus Bridge broke on the media and interrupted the Nuremberg trial the first time it was shown on network television. And that juxtaposition seemed to be very powerful and I wanted to get the congressman's reaction to that. I also wanted to thank him for being such a role model for college students (unintelligible) on that students can change the world for the better. Thank you so much.
LEWISWhat happened March 7, 1965 in Selma, that Sunday became known as Bloody Sunday. I had been through many, many peaceful, nonviolent protests and had never ever witnessed anything like that. On that day I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die. We was unarmed participants that's gonna go on a silent walk from Selma, Ala. to Montgomery 50 miles away.
REHMHow many people were in that march?
LEWISIt was 600 people walking in twos armed only with a dream. It was almost like a holy march walking across that bridge, crossing the Alabama River. I thought we would be arrested and jailed. I was wearing a backpack, Diane, before it became fashionable to wear a backpack. In this backpack I had two books, had one apple and one orange. I wanted to have something to eat, something to read. In the backpack I had toothpaste and toothbrush. I wanted to be able to brush my teeth.
LEWISAnd we get to the top of the bridge, down below we saw a sea of blue, Alabama State Troopers. We continued to walk. We come within hearing distance of the State Trooper. A man's there, a Major John Cloud of the Alabama State Troopers, this is an unlawful march, you will not be allowed to continue, I give you three minutes to disperse and return to your church. And a young man from Dr. King's organization walking beside me, name Jose Williams, said, Major, give us a moment to kneel and pray. And before we can pass back to kneel and pray, the major said, troopers advance. You saw these men putting on their gas masks. They came toward us, beating us, trampling us with horses and they're using the tear gas.
LEWISThe American people didn't like it. When they read about it, when they saw it on television, heard it on the radio, they start protesting. In less than 24 hours, there were demonstration in more than 80 cities in America, at the White House, at the Department of Justice. The president acted. The Congress acted. And President Lyndon Johnson made one of the most meaningful speeches than any American president had made in modern time eight days later on March 15, 1965. We call it the We Shall Overcome speech.
LEWISAt the end of that speech, he said, and we shall overcome. I was sitting next to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a home of a local family. I looked at him. He started crying, tears came down his face. And we all cried a little to hear the president of the United States say, and we shall overcome. And Dr. King said, we'll make it from Selma to Montgomery and the voting rights act will be passed. And it was passed.
REHMCongressman John Lewis of Georgia, his new book is titled "Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change." This is a man who has lived to see the change. Thank you so much.
LEWISThank you very much. Thank you, Diane, and an honor to be with you this morning.
REHMAnd my honor. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.