Image above (from left): Ralph Abernathy, James Forman, Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Douglas, and John Lewis. King leads the five-day, 54-mile march for voting rights in 1965, from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery. Lewis was 25 years old at the time.
John Lewis, now a Georgia congressman, was the teenage son of Alabama sharecroppers when he first met Martin Luther King Jr., 60 years ago. One of the last surviving members of King’s inner circle, the 78-year-old Lewis is an icon of the movement. Here, he recalls what it was like to know King and to hear the messages that shape the world today.
This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.
Vann R. Newkirk II: Especially for young folks, who know him only from history books, tell us what it was like to know Dr. King.
John Lewis: I grew up about 50 miles from Montgomery. Growing up there as a young child, I tasted the bitter fruits of racism. I saw the signs that said white men, colored men; white women, colored women; white waiting, colored waiting. And I would ask my mother, my father, my grandparents, and my great-grandparents why. They would say, “That’s the way it is. Don’t go getting in trouble.”
But in 1955, at 15 years old, I heard of Dr. King, and I heard of Rosa Parks. They inspired me to get in trouble. I remember meeting Rosa Parks as a student. In 1957, I wrote Dr. King a letter and told him that I wanted to attend a little [whites-only] college 10 miles from my home—Troy State College, known today as Troy University. I submitted my application and my high-school transcript. I never heard a word from the school, so that gave me the idea that I should write Dr. King.
In the meantime, I had been accepted to a little college in Nashville, Tennessee, so I went off to school there. King heard that I was there and got in touch with me. He told me that when I was back home for spring break, to go and see him in Montgomery.
Newkirk: How did that first meeting go?
Lewis: A young lawyer met me at the Greyhound bus station and drove me to the First Baptist Church—pastored by Ralph Abernathy—and ushered me into the office. I saw Dr. King and Reverend Abernathy standing behind a desk and was so scared that I didn’t know what to do. Dr. King said, “Are you the boy from Troy? Are you John Lewis?” And I said, “I am John Robert Lewis”—I gave my whole name. And he still called me “the boy from Troy”! He told me to go back and have a discussion with my mother and my father. He said they could lose their land; their home could be burned or bombed. But if I got the okay from them, we would file a suit against Troy State and against the state of Alabama, and I would get admitted to the school. I had a discussion with my mother and my father, and they were terribly afraid, so I continued to study in Nashville.
It was in Nashville that I got involved in the sit-ins and, later, the Freedom Rides. We were beaten and left bloody and unconscious at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery during the Freedom Rides in ’61. King was there, at the same church where I first met him and Reverend Abernathy. [A white mob] attempted to burn the church or bomb the church, and King made a call to [Attorney General] Robert Kennedy, and [he] intervened and put the city of Montgomery under martial law. That probably kept us alive and kept people from burning or bombing the church.
I saw King so many times afterward—-during the end of the Freedom Rides and during our efforts to desegregate places all across the South. He inspired me. He lifted me. He was a brave and courageous person, and when you would listen to him speak or talk to you, you were ready to go out there and put your life on the line, because he made it so plain and so clear that it was the right thing to do. He taught me to be hopeful, to be optimistic, to never get lost in despair, to never become bitter, and to never hate.
Newkirk: You marched with Dr. King at the March on Washington, in 1963, and spoke at the Lincoln Memorial. What was that like?
Lewis: Some people were concerned about what I had planned to say in my speech. I had a line in there saying something like, “If we do not see meaningful progress here today, the day may come when we do not confine our march to Washington, but we may be forced to march through the South the way Sherman did, nonviolently.” Dr. King said to me, “John, that doesn’t sound like you! Can you change that?” I couldn’t say no to Mr. A. Philip Randolph, who was the dean of black leadership. I couldn’t say no to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We made those changes, but my speech still came across okay.
Newkirk: It’s been 50 years since Dr. King was killed. How much further do we need to go in order to achieve the things he hoped for?
Lewis: There are forces in the South today that are trying to make it harder for students, young people, senior citizens, and people of color to participate in the democratic process, and there’s still a need to dramatize the issue. There’s still a need to speak up—speak out—and there’s still a need for marches, now more than ever before.
Newkirk: Dr. King spoke of the three evils of racism, poverty, and militarism. Which of these do you think presents the biggest challenge today in America?
Lewis: I’d say all three. There are people in high places today that feel at home saying racist things and trying to sweep some of the problems and issues that we have to confront under the American rug or in some dark corner, and we cannot let that happen.
We have to continue to do what we can to rid the country of racism, and do what we can—and what we must—to end hunger and poverty. It doesn’t make sense to live in a country that is so wealthy, so rich, and their people still lack food and health care. And we have to stop spending hundreds, thousands, millions, and billions of dollars on militarism.
That’s why we have to get people to participate in the democratic process—to register to vote on every occasion when there is an election. I gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma [during the voting-rights march to Montgomery, in 1965]. I almost died on that bridge, and as long as I have breath in my body, I think I will be inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. Forever I’m indebted to him, and I will do what I can to see that all people have the opportunity to participate in the democratic process.
Newkirk: Are you worried that the forces you fought are becoming resurgent and gaining new power?
Lewis: I’m worried. I’m deeply concerned. We saw what happened [during the white-nationalist rally] in Charlottesville, Virginia. I thought we had passed that phase of American life. To read about what happened, to watch it on television—it made me sad. It made me cry. I think there’s a climate and environment in America today, and there are individuals in high places that are saying, in effect, “We’re not going to let you go any further. We’re going to stop you here.” And they have been supported by some elected officials and encouraged by a Klan-racist element in our society. We cannot let that happen.
This article appears in the special MLK issue print edition with the headline “King Inspired Me to Get in Trouble.”