By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
Growing up in rural Alabama, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) remembers asking his parents and grandparents about the signs designating bathrooms and other public areas for white and black people, and they would tell him that segregation was just the way things were.
But Lewis recalled Monday in a talk at T.C. Williams that he could not abide that, especially as he heard of the actions of Rosa Parks and the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. as a 15-year-old in 1955.
“[They] inspired me to find a way get in the way,” he said. “I got in the way, I got in trouble, but I thought it was good trouble, necessary trouble.”
The civil rights leader addressed an invited group of ninth through 12th grade social studies and history students in the auditorium at T.C., and remarked early on about his enjoyment of the film “Remember the Titans,” which he said he first watched sitting next to former President Bill Clinton at a theater on Connecticut Avenue in D.C.
Over the course of his time on the stage, Lewis held the audience rapt as he shared tales from his early life, the civil rights movement and shared advice for how they should conduct themselves. Through all of this, he said, not resorting to violence is crucial.
“That is the power of the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence,” Lewis said. “We all must learn to live together as brothers and sisters, because we all live in the same house, not just the American house, but the world house.”
He recalled how after finishing a Freedom Ride — where civil rights leaders rode interstate buses in the South to test the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that segregating public buses was unconstitutional — in South Carolina, white supremacists beat him and the white man sitting next to him. Then, in February 2009, one of the men who attacked them came to Lewis’ office on Capitol Hill and asked for forgiveness, which Lewis gave him.
Lewis remembered being part of the sit-in protests in which activists looked to raise awareness of segregated lunch counters, libraries and other municipal facilities, and having people spit on him or stub their cigarettes out on his hair, his back or in his coffee.
“By sitting down, we were standing up,” he said, adding that he was arrested for such activities more than 40 times yet felt “free” and “liberated” in jail, as he was standing up for what he believed in.
There were also lighter moments, as Lewis recalled growing up in Troy, Ala., as the son of a sharecropper. At the age of eight, he wanted to be a minister, and so would gather his family’s chickens in the chicken yard and preach to them.
“Some of those chickens tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues listen to me today in Congress, and some of those chickens were a little more productive,” Lewis joked, exempting U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who was present as one of the event’s special guests.
Lewis also remembered the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, which he described as 600 people taking a “little walk” and being stopped violently by Alabama state troopers, who met the protestors on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and beat them back with tear gas, nightsticks and officers on horseback.
Lewis said he brought books, an orange, an apple, a toothbrush and toothpaste in his backpack, anticipating he would need supplies after his inevitable arrest. He said he feared for his life as he was beaten by the officers and nearly died from his wounds.
The events on the bridge were broadcast nationally, and President Lyndon Johnson responded by sending a bill to Congress that would become the Voting Rights Act, enfranchising millions of citizens who were blocked from voting because of the color of their skin. Lewis criticized the decision of the Supreme Court in 2013 to strike down some aspects of the act as unconstitutional, and added that the growth in laws requiring people to present photo
identification before voting was an attempt to halt the progress the civil rights movement made.
“There are forces in America that want to take us back to another period,” Lewis told reporters after the event. “We’ve made too much progress to go back. Congress needs to come together in a bipartisan fashion and do what is right, what is fair, what is just, 50 years later.”
Lewis encouraged students to carry the torch toward ending racism and discrimination, as he said his generation’s work is not yet done.
“As young people, as leaders of the 21st century, you must do your part,” he said. “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up and speak out. We all come from some other place, we are all immigrants. Love is better than hate. Nonviolence is better than violence.”