John Lewis is always looking for “good trouble.” At 77, the Atlanta congressman who has served in the House for 30 years remains one of the fiercest lions in the fight for racial justice and equality. He rallies scores of fellow legislators for a sit-in on gun violence, leads an impromptu march of 1,000 comic book fans during the super-popular San Diego Comic-Con to promote civil rights awareness, or continues to speak out on issues—most recently, President Donald Trump’s derogatory remarks regarding Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa and the administration’s denial of protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
His lifelong activism inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the slain civil rights leader the nation is honoring today, Lewis’ focus, among other concerns, has been fighting the divisive messaging and policies of the Trump White House. Lewis said of the president’s latest invective during his Sunday morning appearance on ABC’s This Week: “I think he is a racist. We have to stand up. We have to speak up and not try to sweep it under the rug.” In fact, Lewis will not vote on federal funding necessary to avert a government shutdown by week’s end “until we have a deal on DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals).” Moreover, he will be among Democrats boycotting the Jan. 30 State of the Union address.
For more than a half-century of tackling such battles, the resolve of this Troy, Alabama, native and son of sharecroppers continues to be driven by the example of MLK’s unwavering nonviolent activism. He shares a long, rich history with the iconic civil rights leader: “I remember when I was 17, writing a letter to Dr. King. I wanted to enter a particular college, and they wouldn’t let black people attend. So Dr. King wrote me back and sent me a round-trip Greyhound bus ticket, inviting me to come to Montgomery, Alabama, to meet with him.” During that meeting, the life of “The Boy From Troy “—as King called him—was changed forever.
At the age of 23, Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an organization that engaged students to participate in sit-ins, freedom rides, and other activities during the Civil Rights Movement, was the youngest architect and keynote speaker of the historic 1963 March on Washington, where King delivered his powerful, nation-changing I Have A Dream speech. A year later, President Lyndon Johnson would sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964, putting an end to legal segregation of public institutions and accommodations.
The young, unyielding organizer was also among those who led more than 600 peaceful, orderly demonstrators across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 in a protest for voting rights in one of the bastions of Jim Crow. As such, he was wounded in a brutal attack by Alabama state troopers that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” The efforts of King, along with Lewis, civil rights leaders, and protesters, proved critical in passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which ensured the protection of the franchise for all Americans.
Lewis, who received the Earl G. Graves Sr. Vanguard Award at the inaugural BLACK ENTERPRISE Black Men Xcel Summit last September, spoke with BE’s Editor-In-Chief Derek T. Dingle about continuing the fight in today’s environment.
You’ve always been at the forefront of fighting for the advancement of the disenfranchised. How do you view activism in today’s political climate?
We cannot deny the fact that we’ve come a distance. We have made some unbelievable progress. I tell you that despite all of the progress that we’ve made, the scars and stains of racism are still deeply embedded into American society. What happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, [at the white supremacist rally last summer] made me want to cry because they want to take us back. We’ve come too far, and we cannot go back.
You talked about Charlottesville and the rise of white nationalists and neo-Nazis. What can be done to address this activity?
When we see white nationalists put down people of color and salute like Hitler, we have to do something. I say to young people, when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have an obligation to say something, to do something, to speak up and speak out. We must educate all of our young people, and it doesn’t matter if they’re black or white, Latino, Asian American, or Native American. I think it will be the young people that get us there. They will lead us through the 21st century.
So, you find that more young people are taking a stand?
These young people have been reading their literature, the history, and watching the film footage of what happened years ago. They don’t want to go through that, and they’re determined that they will stand up, speak up, and speak out and try to make our country and society better for the generation yet unborn.
You’ve developed the graphic novel series, March. Tell us why you decided to share your life and the history of the Civil Rights Movement using this platform.
In 1958, I read a comic book called Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Story. It was 16 pages, cover to cover. It sold for 10 cents. Dr. King helped edit this book. It told the story of Montgomery, of people walking more than 381 days rather than ride segregated buses. That little book inspired me. I remember much earlier in my life, when I was 15, I went down to the public library in the little town of Troy, Alabama, trying to get a library card, and the librarian said, “The library’s for whites only and not for coloreds.” So I never went back to that library until 1998. By that time, I was in Congress and I’m there for a book signing of my first book, Walking with the Wind.
It’s important for our young people, our children, to be able to read the stories, the tales of what happened and how it happened. They, too, can be inspired to stand up and get in good trouble.
Do you see the groundswell of activism translating into politics and the emergence of a new generation of leaders? How will it impact the 2018 midterm elections?
I think we are going to see more young people, especially more young women, organizing, mobilizing, running for office at the local level, state level, and federal level. We will see young men and women coming together with the necessary sources to combat forces in 2018 and Congress is going to look different—not just the House but also the Senate.
In the past, black business pioneers like A.G. Gaston and H.J. Russell played a role in the Civil Rights Movement. For example, they were responsible for bailing out protesters after they were arrested in marches and sit-ins. I’d like to gain your perspective on the role for black entrepreneurs today.
You’re so right that another generation of black business leaders played a role. It was not just the big ones like A. G. Gaston in Birmingham, Alabama, some realtor or some contractor but even the mom and pops, beauty shop owners, barber shop owners helped bail people out of jail, feed people in small towns and rural communities in Atlanta, Nashville, and Montgomery. We have advanced so much further. People pooling resources can use the resources to make more than just a down payment on getting us where we need to go. When the movie Selma came out, a large number of minority businesspeople raised money to make tickets available for young people and students to learn from that. And supporting organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the NAACP is so important. It is a must. There’s a role for the African American business community to play.
What will it take to galvanize people to vote? Is there a message that will get more people fired up to go to the polls?
I truly believe the message must be very simple. We’ve got to convince people that the vote is precious, that it is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democratic society and we’ve got to use it, If we don’t use it, we’re going to lose it because there are forces that want to take us much further back. We commemorate and celebrate the march from Selma to Montgomery, the March on Washington but we’ve got to do more than celebrate.