The Power of Memory in the Civil-Rights Movement

The events of the 1960s are fading into history, but John Lewis believes eyewitness accounts are key to continued progress.
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Reuters

ASPEN, Colo.—What makes John Lewis such an important link to the crucial period of the civil-rights period isn’t just that he was there. It’s that he can conjure dates, faces, and details from those experiences with such impressive command.

The longtime Georgia Democratic member of Congress demonstrated a little of that Wednesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is hosted by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute.

He spoke about the powerful feeling he got the first time he met Martin Luther King, when Lewis was still a teenager: “To be in his presence, to be able to talk with him, just made me feel stronger and more daring.”

He remembered exactly what was said in the moments before Alabama State Troopers attacked the peaceful marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma: Hosea Williams asked Officer John Cloud for a moment to pray, but the mass of troopers attacked instead. (Lewis’s skull was fractured by a nightstick that day.)

He remembered the meal he ate with fellow Freedom Riders the day before they boarded buses in Washington, D.C., headed south. It was the first time he’d ever had Chinese food. “Someone said, 'You should eat well, because this might be your last meal,'” Lewis recalled.

He remembered being tipped off that he was going to be arrested one day and going to a used-clothing store the day before to buy a suit for $5. (He wishes he still had the suit, though he doesn’t imagine he’d still fit in it. But he’s going to wear one just like it to attend Comic-Con this year, where he’s promoting a graphic memoir.)

Interviewer Gwen Ifill asked Lewis how he maintains his mastery of the dates and names of his associates from decades ago. “We became a circle of trust, a band of brothers and sisters,” he said. “You don’t forget the names and faces.”

This isn’t just a matter of maintaining a chronicle—it’s about ensuring that the importance of these events, and their continuing relevance today, is not forgotten.

“A lot of young people don’t think about it,” he said. “In 1961, black and white people couldn’t get on a Greyhound bus, on a Trailways bus, in Washington, D.C., and travel through Virginia ... down to New Orleans. When the Supreme Court made the decision gutting the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ... I wanted to cry. I would love to take members of the Supreme Court back to Selma and walk across that bridge.”

Earlier in the day, Lewis had stirred conservative ire with a tweet in which he said that if the Civil Rights Act—enacted 50 years ago Wednesday—wouldn’t pass today’s Congress. On stage, he rejected any sort of triumphalism about civil rights. “It’s not over,” he said. “We’re not there yet. We have not yet built the beloved community. We have not yet laid down the burden of race.”

Yet Lewis remains optimistic: “I’m 74, but I’m as hopeful as the first time I took a seat on that lunch-counter stool.”

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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