Walking With the Wind

Rep. John Lewis Reflects on a Lifetime in the Civil Rights Movement, Urges Colleagues to Come Together in 106th.

Roll Call, February 15, 1999

While Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) has dedicated his life to nonviolent change, he was introduced to the American public in a very violent way.  As a 25-year-old civil rights activist in 1965, he was beaten nearly to death by state troopers as he crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Ala. But in a Feb. 2 interview with Roll Call, Lewis noted that he also enjoyed many sweet moments over the years. He points to a photo of a young Lewis sitting with then-President Lyndon Johnson on the morning the President signed the Voting Rights Act.

As a child, he was denied access to the public library in Troy, Ala. But something strange happened last year, after Lewis published his memoir, "Walking with the Wind."   The Congressman received a call from a tiny library in Alabama that wanted him to come to Troy to discuss his book. And they were finally ready to issue him a library card. After several minutes of digging through the cards in his wallet, the 57-year-old Lewis finally finds the new library card and smiles.

ROLL CALL: We just wanted to start off by asking how you define civil rights.

REP.JOHN LEWIS: You cannot separate civil rights from what I would consider basic human rights. In America there [are] certain rights that are guaranteed by and protected by the Constitution. They're granted in the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights - those are rights that are sort of ordained by the state.

But when you come to the question of human rights, they are ordained by some force or some power of some being superior to all human kind. And those are rights that must not be denied because of [the] federal government, or state government or local government. So, sometimes when I speak of civil rights, I'm really speaking of human rights.

ROLL CALL: For people who have not gotten a chance to read [your book], what do you want people to know about your experiences in the movement?

LEWIS: I wanted to write the book not just to tell my story, but to tell the story of the countless individuals - men, women, especially young people, black and white - who put their bodies on the line during a very difficult period in the history for our country. I wanted people to know that they could use the power of nonviolence, the philosophy of nonviolence, to bring about meaningful changes in America and the world.

ROLL CALL: From reading your book, a reader might wonder whether young people today care enough about civil rights. People in your generation were actually willing to go to jail and literally willing to put their life on the line. Do you worry that young people today maybe don't care quite as much?

LEWIS: I don't worry a great deal, but I'm concerned. That's why I think it is important for young people, and those of us not quite so young, to understand what occurred during this period of our history. It's contemporary history, it's not ancient history.

But sometimes when I am speaking to young people, young children, and talk about civil rights, talk about the signs - that said white waiting, colored waiting, white men, colored men, white women, colored women - people think it was back during the days of slavery. And they ask me questions, "What was it like to live during that period, during that time?"

These are young kids, and sometimes we have to be able to say to young people that "Yes, at another period in our history there were young people, 9, 10 and 11, 14, 15 and 16, 18 and 19 and 20, that had the courage to be willing to put their bodies on the line, to be beaten, to get arrested and go to jail."

ROLL CALL: In Congress specifically, what from your own experiences do you think you bring that you would like other Members of Congress to understand?

LEWIS: Well, I spend a great deal of time talking to my colleagues, especially younger Members, in an informal way about the civil rights movement. And we have an organization here on Capitol Hill called [the] Faith and Politics [Institute]. We brought together a group of Members to talk about race, to engage in a dialogue on race. These are Republicans, Democrats; they are liberal, moderate, conservative Members. They are black, white, Hispanic, Asian-Americans.

And one thing we did ... we took a group of members from Washington to Birmingham [Ala.]. We went to the church where the poor little girl was killed and we went to the civil rights museum there. We went to Montgomery, went to this park where Rosa Parks was arrested.

And next month, the first weekend in March, we're going to have a much larger group of Members taking the same trip. It's not just to help educate Members about the civil rights movement, but also to [raise] larger questions of race. ...

I wish sometime you could be a fly on the wall and hear some Member from the deep south, from Arkansas, from Georgia or from Alabama, talk about race, black and white Members, hear Members from the north say that this is my first time in Alabama and I never thought I would be here, almost reluctant to shake their hand with [former] Governor [George] Wallace [D] but they saw black Members saying, "Hello, governor, how are you?" and that made them feel comfortable to walk up and shake his hand.

ROLL CALL: Do you feel that kind of experience can help bring Republicans and Democrats together on civil rights issues?

LEWIS: The question of civil rights is not a partisan issue. The question of race in America cannot become a political football. It is something that we must deal with. It is a burden that is too heavy for any of us to bear, and we have to find a way to live together now.

ROLL CALL: Speaking of your colleagues, some of them have been written about a lot lately in the media because they have delivered speeches to the Council of Conservative Citizens. That includes one of your Georgia colleagues, Rep. Bob Barr [R], and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott [R-Miss.]. What do you think about your colleagues speaking before the CCC and do you plan to try sit down and talk to them about whether or not they should speak before that group?

LEWIS: No, I don't have any plans to talk with my colleague and my neighbor right next to me, Mr. Barr [or] Mr. Lott. I just don't think Members of Congress, especially people in leadership positions, roup against bringing people together. I think that's sending the wrong message really and I think both Mr. Barr and Mr. Lott should denounce the group and not have anything to do with those types of groups.

ROLL CALL: I don't want to take this off track, but race has become an issue within the impeachment matter. There seems to be a lot of stories coming out that say that the African-American community has been the President's biggest supporter. And [White House deputy counsel] Cheryl Mills, in her speech to the Senate, mentioned race. And Rep. Lindsey Graham [R-S.C.] spoke of how the Paula Jones case was a civil rights case.

LEWIS: Well, I think race is a factor; whether we like it or not, race tends to color so much of America. The scars and stains of racism are still deeply embedded in American society, and many of the characters in this drama happen to be people of color.

But there is a feeling in the African-American community, and I see it every time I'm back in my district or go and speak to a large group of African-Americans in Queens or in Brooklyn or almost any place in the country, and you hear in the airports, you hear in the churches that feeling that people are out to get President Clinton because of his attitude, his feeling, his support not just for the African-American community but for minorities, for women.

ROLL CALL: What do you say to Republicans who say that Democrats are being hypocrites? Why is it that Democrats don't seem to care about Paula Jones' civil rights? That was the point of your colleague Lindsey Graham's speech.

LEWIS: I think that Democrats care. We don't want to see anybody's civil rights or human rights violated or being denied. But I think Democrats and the American people are saying enough is enough, the President made mistakes, he made a lot of blunders, he asked us to forgive him.

And this is very much in keeping with the philosophy, the system of nonviolence, the very foundation of the civil rights movement, that we should have the power, the ability, the capacity to forgive and move on and don't try to continue and open wounds.

ROLL CALL: One of the topics of this policy briefing we're doing is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. And a lot of gay rights activists have compared what they are going through now to the struggle of Americans in the '50s and '60s. Do you feel those comparisons are appropriate?

LEWIS: I think it is appropriate. There's not any room in our society for discrimination, whether it's based on race, color, national origin or sexual orientation.

I fought too long and too hard against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up and speak out and fight against discrimination based on sexual orientation. I don't think it is in keeping with the very philosophy, the very creed, with the, if you want to call it, the American way to discriminate against one because of sexual orientation and if people want to make changes in America, continue to make changes and become a greater nation, we've got to go much further down that road to opening up society and liberating people, all people. As long as one segment of the population is being held down, kept down, being discriminated against because of their race, their color or their sexual orientation, it isn't over.

ROLL CALL: The tide seems to be turning against affirmative action. I was wondering if you can say what Congress can or should do to reverse that trend.

LEWIS: I believe in affirmative action, I think it's needed, useful, necessary to help people who are left out, left behind, to compensate, to amend, to include people whether they are being left out because of race or sex or sexual orientation.

So I believe that we should still use affirmative action because we're not yet a colorblind society so we still have a distance to go.

But I'm not hopeful that the mindset of this Congress is prepared to do the things to help affirmative action. I think we have to look to a different Supreme Court and to a different Congress. During another period in our history, recent history, we looked to the federal government as a sympathetic referee in the whole struggle for civil rights when it came to basic decisions.

Today, I'm not so sure that we can continue to look to the highest court or to the Congress, maybe that will change within the next few years.

ROLL CALL: A lot of people from around the world point to the U.S. and take the example of Native Americans and say this is a place [where] the U.S. has not fulfilled its civil rights commitment and not treated people well. Is there anything Congress can or should do to address this?

LEWIS: There's a great deal we should do, we have not been fair with Native Americans, we have not kept our word in so many instances when it comes to just basic agreements, treaty rights, natural resources, including water and land.

I've had an opportunity to go visit Native Americans. I spent one week in Winter Rock in Arizona and I've talked with Native Americans that come to Washington from time to time. As a matter of fact, I met on a flight back to Atlanta last Friday a young man on his way to Montana and he was here lobbying about water rights, the lack of health care, the lack of education opportunities.

We need to do more, I would love to see the President, to see Members of Congress do much more to protect the rights of Native Americans, see that they get the necessary health care, education. ... Not just people from areas where you have a heavy concentration of Native Americans but other Members of Congress to get out, go out and go and visit a reservation.

During the Carter administration, I tried to encourage President Carter to go out and spend some time. I think many of us come from our own district and come to Washington and we're not to see that other world out there and I think some of the criticisms are very legitimate.

ROLL CALL: You mentioned in the book that when you were a young man, Thurgood Marshall came down and that you met him and one of the things he said was, "Once you are arrested, you made your point, if someone offers to get you out, man, get out." And you said no, you had the deepest respect for him, but you rejected that philosophy. Do you still have that philosophy in Congress about facing these kinds of issues and not giving in?

LEWIS: Oh, I do. I don't think that I changed one bit. If you believe in something, if something is an immutable principle for you, you don't deviate from it, you don't give up on it.

And I think from time to time, even in the Congress, we have to find a way to dramatize an issue. Here we're in the minority so, as Democrats, and even in a bipartisan fashion I think sometime we have to find a way to go beyond the ordinary and do something out of the ordinary to make a point to help educate, to help sensitize, to help dramatize an issue.

ROLL CALL: At the beginning of your book you talk about this wind storm that almost brought down your house and you had I think it was 15 kids in the house ...

LEWIS: Twelve or 15, very young children.

ROLL CALL: And you basically were rocking back and forth in the house, when the wind blew this side of the house, you all went to that side to keep it down and back and forth. In the beginning of the book you said, "Our society is not unlike the children in that house rocked again and again by the winds of one storm or another, the walls around us seeming at times as if they might fly apart." What did you mean by that?

LEWIS: The point I was trying to make is that in spite of the storm, in spite of the lightning flashing, and the thunder rolling, and the rain beating on this old tin roof house, we never left the house. We held hands as young children with this one adult and we walked with the wind trying to hold this house together.

And I see America as a house and we're one family and we're one house and we cannot leave the house. So the storms may come, the lightening may flash, the thunder may roll, and the rain may beat on this old house we call America, but we must never, ever leave the house.

And during the past 35, 40 or 50 years, many of us, black and white, young and old, rich and poor, have been walking from Selma to Montgomery to Birmingham to Nashville to Atlanta to Washington; in spite of all of the things moving around us, we're still trying to hold the American house together.

And I think that America must understand that maybe just maybe we all came to this country, our forefathers, our foremothers came in different ships, and we come through a lot of storms but we're all in the same boat, we're all in the same house and we must create one America, one house, one family, the American house, the American family. I truly believe that is what we must do as a nation. It's our salvation.