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