The United States Conference of Mayors: Celebrating 75 Years

Congressman John Lewis, Civil Rights Leader, Keynotes Conference African American History Month Program

By Larry Jones


Congressman John Lewis, a distinguished civil rights leader in the 1960s who currently represents Georgia's fifth congressional district (Atlanta and parts of several surrounding counties), provided a rousing speech to Conference employees at their February 26 African American history program. Described as one of the most courageous persons the civil rights movement ever produced, Congressman Lewis commanded the undivided attention of Conference employees for more than one hour as he provided first-hand accounts of his involvement in the American movement.

Born in 1940 outside Troy, Alabama, Lewis grew up on his family's farm and attended segregated public schools. He was introduced to racism at an early age. In 1950 when he was ten years old he went to a library in downtown Troy to check out some books. To his disappointment, he was told by the librarian that the library was "only for whites not for blacks." At that moment, he knew something was seriously wrong and he wanted to do something about it. But little did he know that it would be many years of personal struggle and sacrifice before he would get the changes he and most African Americans desired so much. Much has changed since the 1950s. He announced that on July 5 of last year he was invited back to the library for a book signing ceremony "and they gave me a library card," which he proudly keeps in his wallet.

In December of 1955 at the age of fifteen, Lewis for the first time heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and Rosa Parks. After Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus to a white person, Dr. King went to Montgomery and lead a boycott in protest of the city's segregated policy. As a result, black residents of Montgomery refused to ride the segregated buses. Instead, many walked for miles to and from work and other essential places. Lewis followed very closely the drama taking place in Montgomery, which was only fifty miles from where he lived. Recalling the event, he said "I saw people walking in dignity with pride rather than ride segregated buses."

As a student Lewis studied the philosophy and discipline of non-violence. He studied Henry David Thoreau and civil disobedience, he studied what Mahatma Gandhi attempted to do in South Africa and what he accomplished in India and he studied Martin Luther King, Jr. and what he accomplished in the Montgomery bus boycott.

As a college student at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, Lewis organized sit-in demonstrations in protest of segregated lunch counters in Nashville. In the fall of 1959 and the spring of 1960, black and white students under his leadership participated in sit-ins at many restaurants and lunch counters in Nashville. He recalled "while we were sitting there in an orderly, peaceful and nonviolent fashion, people would come up and put lighted cigarettes out on our hair or down our backs, pour hot coffee or hot water down our backs, or pull us off the stools." Although Lewis and other students remained peaceful and orderly during the demonstrations, they were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Following their arrests, Lewis said the sit-in movement spread across the South like a wild fire. Key leaders in the civil rights movement such as Thurgood Marshall, Daisy Bates and Roy Wilkins came to Nashville and the South to inspire Lewis and other students involved in the sit-in.

On May 1, 1961 Lewis came to Washington to take part in the freedom rides, a movement designed to test a Supreme Court decision banning segregation in interstate travel. Seven whites and six blacks participated in the rides which took them from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans. Before leaving they gathered on May 3 at a Chinese restaurant to get something to eat and Lewis recalls that one of the students remarked "...eat well because this may be like The Last Supper." During the freedom rides, Lewis and the other students were met by angry mobs in Birmingham and Montgomery where they were pulled off the bus and severely beaten. They put their lives on the line to integrate waiting rooms at bus stop in interstate travel.

In 1964, Lewis took an active role in organizing voter registration drives and community action programs during the Mississippi Freedom Summer. In discussing the need for the voter registration drive, Lewis said during the period between 1963 and 1965, "the state of Mississippi had a black voting age population of more than 450,000 and only about 16,000 blacks were registered to vote. There was one county in Alabama, Lowndes County, with an 80 percent African American population and not a single registered black voter." Literacy test, poll taxes and other discriminatory tactics were used in the South to discourage blacks from. Lewis explained that in order to vote "you had be able to pass the literacy test--to interpret certain sections of the of the constitution of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi or the U.S. Constitution."

Along with fellow activist Hosea Williams, Lewis led one of the most dramatic nonviolent protest in the civil rights movement. In their quest for voting rights in the south, Lewis and Williams led 525 marchers over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965. The marchers were attacked by the Alabama State Troopers and beaten so badly that the event became known as "Bloody Sunday." Inspired by the event, two days later more than 1000 religious leaders came to Selma and marched peacefully over the same bridge. Later, Lewis along with more than 10,000 marchers returned and marched over the bridge.

A week after "Bloody Sunday," Lewis said President Lyndon Johnson spoke to a joint session of Congress and the nation. Recalling a portion of the President's speech, Lewis said he spoke from his heart in telling the American people "I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy. At times history and fate meet in a single place in man's unending search for freedom. So it was more than a century ago at Lexington and Concord. So it was at Appomattox and so it was last week in Selma, Alabama. Setting with Dr. Martin Luther King while viewing the speech on television, Lewis remembered that Dr. King cried as he listened to the speech and as the President invoked over and over "We Shall Overcome."

After the speech, King turned to Lewis and said we will make it from Selma to Montgomery, a march held to focus national attention on the need for voting rights in the south. Dr. King was right. More than 25,000 black and white marchers from all over the country participated in one of the most successful demonstrations in American history. As a result, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965 striking down literacy tests and other discriminatory practices that prevented blacks and other minorities from voting in the South.

In Closing, Lewis said "...I say to you because of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the involvement of hundreds and thousands of citizens, we have witnessed in the American South, we have witnessed in our nation what I like to call a nonviolent revolution--a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas. We are a better people. Our country is a better country. We are in the process of creating a truly interracial democracy in America. Yes we have come a distance. We still have a distance to go before we create the beloved community, before we create an open society."