Into Remembering John Lewis
Trymaine Lee: There's a saying that I like. It goes, "We drink from wells that we did not dig." It's a reminder of the sacrifices folks have made for our lives to be better, or more equal, or to matter just a bit more. Congressman John Lewis died on Friday at age 80.
And those words keep ringing in my head. "We drink from wells that we did not dig." In life, John Lewis dug deep. As a teenage seminary student in Nashville, Tennessee, he joined non-violent protests and sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters.
John Lewis: Altogether was a moving feeling within me that I was sitting there demanding a God-given right. And my soul became satisfied that I was right in what I was doing. At the same time was something deep down within me, moving me. That I could no longer be satisfied or go along with an evil system.
Lee: By age 21, he joined the Freedom Rides, a harrowing and bloody journey into the Deep South to challenge segregated bus terminals. At age 23, Lewis was named chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a major civil rights organization. And helped organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He was the youngest speaker on the days that day.
Archival Recording: I have the pleasure to present to this great audience young John Lewis, national chairman, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Brother John Lewis. (APPLAUSE)
Lewis: We march today for jobs and freedom. But we have nothing to be proud of. Both hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here. For they're receiving starvation wages or no wages at all.
Lee: Between 1960 and 1966, he was arrested more than 40 times while protesting for equal rights for Black Americans. At almost every turn his peaceful resistance was met with violence. He was beaten all across Alabama in places like Selma and Montgomery. But each time he'd wipe the blood from his brow and keep going.
At 46, John Lewis was elected to Congress, representing Georgia's 5th Congressional District. And would serve the next three and a half decades until the day he died. Fighting to hold on to many of the gains that were made during the civil rights movement.
He'd push to expand access to health care and safeguard voting rights. And he'd even return to sitting in. This time, on the floor of the House of Representatives protesting for gun reform after another American mass shooting. John Lewis dug deep.
Lewis: Sometimes you have to do something out of the ordinary. Sometimes you have to make a way outta no way. We have been too quiet for too long. There comes a time when you have to say something. When you have to make a little noise. When you have to move your feet.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee. And this is Into America. Today we remember John Lewis. The conscience of Congress. The country boy from Troy, Alabama, turned freedom fighter, turned representative. With someone who knew him better than most, fellow civil rights icon, Drive. Bernard Lafayette.
Dr. Bernard Lafayette: He felt like he was different, okay?
Lee: And he was, right?
Lee: Dr. Bernard Lafayette Jr. has spent decades fighting for civil rights through organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was named national coordinator for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign in 1968. Dr. Lafayette worked alongside John Lewis for years. But they met as roommates at American Baptist College way back in 1958.
Lafayette: We had a common kind of upbringing you might say. In terms of the racial conditions that exist. And we had a lotta the same attitudes about, you know, not accepting it. And not goin' along with it. But at the same time because of the way we were brought up, we didn't have any hatred towards other people. And so we had that in common. But he was the president. Class president. So he was already in a leadership position. And the other thing is he was a year ahead of me. So I got a chance to read all of his books. And he tutored me, okay?
Lee: You know, that's much different than the nightmare roommate situation that some people have. You got John Lewis, (LAUGHTER) the president of the student body, mentoring and teaching you.
Lee: Are there any stories that just stand out that you recall from those early days of just John Lewis?
Lafayette: Well, he was always very calm with others. And the thing that really impressed me was the fact that when there was an issue or problem he never did attack other people. He was very quiet and he listened, okay? And then he decided how he was gonna respond. And people respected him. And I think that's why they wanted him as a leader. Because remember now, all of these students were potential leaders. Like pastors of churches and ministers. So this was a leader of the future leaders.
Lee: So you have in John Lewis this natural born leader. Who were you at that time? And were you, you know, ready to jump into activism and protests from the beginning?
Lafayette: Well, actually what happened is that when John Lewis asked me about these workshops that were goin' on, James Lawson Jr. was a graduate student at Vanderbilt. And he was conducting these workshops in Nashville. 'Cause Martin Luther King had told him to comes south.
And so John Lewis was going to them. And, you know, he asked me to come and I said, "No, man, I don't have time for that. I got jobs." I was always used to working, you know? But he kept insisting. So I said, "All right, okay. All right." I'm gonna come just to shut his mouth. And, sure enough, when I went to that workshop and they were talking about sitting in, you know, at lunch counters and stuff like that, I was hooked. So it was John Lewis that got me hooked.
Lee: There are so many iconic photos of John Lewis. And one that stands out to me which really puts on display the sacrifices that y'all were making is this image of him after he got bloodied and beaten in Alabama I believe it was. During the Freedom Rides.
Lafayette: Oh yeah.
Lee: Could you take us back to 1961 when the Freedom Rides began?
Lafayette: So when it started we started training people, okay? Like we did for the sit-ins there. For the Freedom Rides. And we set up a 24 hour training station. So you have to get organized. It's not just a matter of goin' down, you know, protesting or doing some, you know, sit-ins or whatever.
We had a backup group in other words. So when we took over the Freedom Rides John Lewis was the spokesman for the first group. And I was spokesman for the second group. The backup group. So we had to see what was gonna happen to them when they got to Birmingham leaving Nashville.
And then whatever happened to them then we'd decide on the second group. They got arrested. And while they got arrested we launched a second group. And we crossed each other in the middle of the night, okay? 'Cause some of us went by car and some went by train.
And what we did was met together in Birmingham and started off there. Now when John Lewis was when we got to Montgomery. And we got into Montgomery. It was very quiet even though it was on Saturday morning. No people on the street. No cars running. Nothing like that. We had National Guardsmen. We had state troopers. Everybody giving us protection on the bus. But when the bus got to Montgomery, Alabama bus station, okay, all those protections disappeared. Helicopters and everything.
Lee: They were there and then they're just gone.
Lafayette: Yeah. So we got suspicious. So I told the students to all join hands and find a partner. No matter what happens you stick with your partner so somebody'll know what happened to you. And while we were there getting ready to get off the bus a group of reporters had gotten a bus out of Birmingham earlier ahead of us so that they could film and take pictures and stuff like that.
And the mob came outta the bus station and took off. And started beating up all the reporters. Beating white reporters. Smashing cameras over their head. I couldn't imagine. I didn't know what would happen. So anyway we joined hands. And the mob came and started beating us up.
Then they hit John Lewis on the head with a Coca-Cola crate. Over the head. And that metal strip was the thing that put that gash in his head. Not just the crate, okay? And they were trying to kill John Lewis 'cause they knew him and had identified him as one of the leaders.
And they were clobbin' him over the head. And puttin' scars. Then they came after me. And, boy, this guy had on some brogan shoes. And he was gonna kick me in a certain place on my body. And I tried to protect myself. So I fold my arms around and bent down when he start the kick.
And he ended up crackin' three of my ribs. And I went through the Freedom Rides all those days and months with three cracked ribs. Because there's nothin' you can do with cracked ribs. You know, you can't do a surgery and all that. So that was a lesson for me 'cause I learned how to endure pain. And I didn't wanna complain. Because (LAUGH) my buddies wouldn't let me go on the Freedom Rides if I had cracked ribs, you know?
Lee: You just had to tough it out.
Lafayette: Right. So anyway, it's not the fact that he was hit over the head. The thing about it, John did not move. He did not try to escape. He stood there even after they cracked him over the head. I guess the word that you can describe John Lewis is he had indescribable resistance. Yeah. That was his way of responding in a nonviolent way. To show them that hitting him over the head was not a way to stop him.
Lee: Obviously you all engaged in nonviolent peaceful protests. But even at that time that was still kind of radical, right? I mean we jump to 1963. The March on Washington. And John Lewis is the youngest speaker to give a speech there. And the first draft was so radical that they said, "We gotta tone this down." Talk to us about that kinda dynamic. And what happened there.
Lafayette: Well, the first thing I wanna say is that John Lewis was not stubborn when he got good advice. When he was making his speech together for the March on Washington in '63 he did tone his speech down. Because those older adults wanted to make sure that he did not rile people up.
And so when John Lewis talked about marching on, you know, Atlanta or marching someplace in the South, like Sherman did, that was really more with a military tone. 'Cause, see, when you march like Sherman that's the way he marched. (LAUGH) So John was talking about one concept. But it was also something that could be a misconception.
Lee: Right. Like, you about to come down and burn stuff.
Lafayette: Right, exactly--
Lee: Trail of fire.
Lafayette: Exactly. So John Lewis changed his speech at the advice of, you know, those who were around him who were older. And so they could keep the tone of the whole meeting less volatile.
Lewis: If we do not get meaningful legislation of out this congress, the time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South. Through the streets of Jackson. Through the streets of Danville. Through the streets of Cambridge. Through the streets of Birmingham. (APPLAUSE)
But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today. By the force of our demand, our determination, and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces. And put them together in the image of God and democracy. We must say, "Wake up, America. Wake up." For we cannot stop. And we will not and cannot be patient. (APPLAUSE)
Lee: When we come back, Dr. Bernard Lafayette and I talk about John Lewis's legacy in Congress and the next generation of human rights leaders. Stay with us. Let me ask you this, Dr. Lafayette. When you think back to the young John Lewis you met in seminary school, the John Lewis that you're now desegregating buses with, the John Lewis you watched get cracked in the head with a Coke crate, a soda crate, to the young man who you see delivering this speech at the March on Washington, and years later he ends up in Congress, did you ever expect that from him? Obviously he had those qualities as a leader early on. But did you imagine one day that he would be watching the halls of Congress as a congressman?
Lafayette: No. I would not. I think he might've been sitting in in Congress.
Lee: (LAUGH) Protesting Congress.
Lafayette: But guess what? (LAUGH) He did that too. Even in Congress.
Lafayette: But I never expected he'd be an elected official like that. Now here's what happened. John Lewis always thought ahead. And he recognized that the only way that you can get the attention of those in the power structure was that you had to have power.
So his whole idea of getting into Congress, you know, was the idea of being able to talk to the people who make decisions. And people in power. And people who respected the fact that you had a constituency. So some people think that elected positions were more conservative. And you only had one vote. But that's not the case. What John Lewis wanted to do is be in a position where he can negotiate with the people who had the power to make the difference.
Lee: Over the years, you know, they say that as you grow older you grow a little more conservative or a little more moderate. Was that the case with John Lewis? Did he start to change or evolve a little bit once he was in office? And he had been in office for a very long time. But did you see that change?
Lafayette: I think that John Lewis did not become more moderate. Because when you think about it, sitting in, he even--
Lee: Just a couple years ago.
Lafayette: He sat in (LAUGH) in the Congress.
Lee: It was after the Pulse nightclub shooting. They were sitting there and then took over this marathon sit-in in Congress.
Lewis: Let us vote. We came here to do our job. We came here to work. The American people demand an action. We can no longer be patient. So today we come to the well of the House to dramatize the need for action. Not next month. Not next year. But now. Today.
Lafayette: So there was no difference in terms of his methodology, okay? Because what does that do? He wanted to get the attention. He did that deliberately. And that was the purpose. To get the attention so he would have a voice and a larger audience. But also he would prick the conscience of those. So even those Congressmen who didn't sit in, they were in. They would buy in to the goal that John Lewis was talking about.
Lee: You know, we think about the loss of John Lewis. And obviously we all lost a mountain of a man in John Lewis. But we also lost C. T. Vivian, who died just hours before John Lewis. Can you speak to us about C. T. Vivian's role in the movement?
Lafayette: Yes. C. T. had more experience and he lived longer than other people. But he started earlier in the movement. The other thing about C. T. Vivian, he and I were very close. I'll tell ya how close we were. I'd already bought his birthday card. His birthday's the 30th of July. Mine is the 29th.
And we were very close. In fact we used to have soup together whenever I was in Atlanta. And while we looked out the window of the restaurant we could see the graveyard. So it was always in our minds that that day was coming. But we started out together in Nashville. He was very strong and something was almost musical about the way he spoke, you know? You couldn't escape it. He would capture your mind and your attention and everything else when he spoke.
Lee: That voice of his. There's that moment when he's in Selma, Alabama trying to register voters on the steps of I guess it was the courthouse.
Lee: And he's talking to this, you know, there's a segregationist sheriff in front of him. And the sheriff hauls off and hits him in the face and he falls down these steps. And it's a moment that just symbolized the courage. The courage of the movement and pushing for equality. But that one stands out to me. That moment where he's standing there face to face with this sheriff. And the sheriff attacks him.
C. T. Vivian: You can turn your back now and you can keep the club in your hand. But you cannot beat down justice. And we will register to vote. Because as citizens of these United States we have the right to do it.
Lafayette: In nonviolence the most important thing is how do you respond? C. T. Vivian, like John Lewis, both of them had their resilience. That no matter what happened even when they were hit physically, okay, stood their ground. Stood for what they believed in. No matter what. They put their mind and their bodies on the line.
Lee: Dr. Lafayette, you stood with so many tall men and women that pushed for America to be a better place. They laid their lives on the line. They gave up so much for all of us, right? You stood there with them. But as we watch these men and women pass, and a generation pass, and so many instrumental components to the movement pass, what are we actually losing in these people? What are we losing?
Lafayette: We're losing a lot but more than anything else were losing examples and models. That can be replicated. In other words, they're leaders but they are not impossible to follow. Even when they're gone. What you can't do when they're no longer with us is to hear them speak.
So we're glad they came in our lifetime. That's the thing that's so exciting about it. During our lifetime they were here. Some people don't think about it. But Dr. King, I think it was probably only 12 years that he was involved with the movement. And he was with us for such a short period of time. But what he left in--
Lee: Twelve years.
Lafayette: Okay, it was absolutely incredible.
Lafayette: That's what we teach. And that's what they followed, okay? The teachings of Martin Luther King. So, yes, we appreciate the fact that they were with us. And we regret the fact that they're gone. But we also have to accept the best that they could give they left with us.
Lee: You know, John Lewis recently talked about the next generation carrying on the legacy. And he had a conversation with Al Roker on The Today Show.
Lewis: When I said to myself, "Seems like I've been down this road before," but I've been so moved and so inspired by seeing hundreds and thousands of people. It gives me hope that as a nation and as a people we're gonna get there. We're going to make it.
Lee: When you hear those words from John Lewis, what do you think and what do you feel?
Lafayette: Well, I'm reminded of the different kind of movements that John was involved in. And how even when he was pushed he came back. So it was the comeback that made the difference in terms of the change that took place. That you do not have to remain back simply because you're pushed back.
What we dealing with right now in Congress, even those the Supreme Court ripped out the essence of the Voter's Right bill, it might be considered by others as a finality. But no. And even in his death some people have made the decision that they're gonna come back.
And we're gonna make sure that the gains that we made are not lost. And sometimes we have to do that. You have to try to maintain the gains that you have already made. That's what you call the comeback. And we want our young people to do that.
Lee: Could you talk about your final conversation with him?
Lafayette: The last conversation I had with John Lewis was a few days actually before he passed away. I knew he was not feeling well. And he called me. And he just wanted to hear my voice. 'Cause he didn't have much to say. I didn't know this was gonna be the last conversation we had.
But I ended up doin' more talking than he did even though he called to talk to me. And so I did appreciate that. And wish that things were different. I could've been with him. You know, and be able to see him. But we have to be obedient to this virus that's going around. 'Cause I'd like to be around a little longer myself.
Lee: When you think about, you know, your life with John Lewis and your friendship that spanned all these years, is there a memory that you hold really dear? Is there a moment in time that you just reflect on and say, you know, "This symbolizes our friendship, and our relationship, and our commitment to what we were doing"?
Lafayette: Well, just on our friendship and closeness I remember that my mother used to send me suits, you know, and clothes when I was in seminary. And she used to always send me two suits. So I used to give John Lewis a suit. So we shared the same clothes and that kinda thing.
And the other thing that I always remember was the fact that when he was in the presence of Martin Luther King it was very special to John Lewis. The world should know that. That Martin Luther King was John Lewis's inspiration. John Lewis wanted to make sure that, even though we lost Matin Luther King, we did not lose the Kingian, you know, philosophy. And the Kingian movement. And he decided he was gonna make sure that that was continued to live. And that's one of the reasons why he did what he did.
Lee: Dr. Lafayette, thank you so much for your reflection on John Lewis. But also thank you for your work. You know, we walk in the shadows of great men and women. And you are one of them, sir. So thank you for your time. I really appreciate it.
Lafayette: Well, thank you. And by the way, we really appreciate what you're doing, okay? So keep doing what you're doing.
Lee: Yes, sir. Thank you very much.
Lafayette: Thank you.
Lee: That was civil rights leader Bernard Lafayette remembering his friend, John Lewis.
Lewis: We're going to survive. And there will be no turning back. Terrorist may be some setbacks. There may be people who will stand in our way. But we will not go back. We've come too far. And we're not going to give up now.
Lee: Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee and we'll be back on Wednesday.