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The Last Dreamer
John Lewis was on the front lines in Selma, Birmingham and Montgomery. Today, the fight has changed
This article originally appeared in our August 2003 issue.
As John Lewis crests the Edmund Pettus Bridge, voices sweep around him and build into a crescendo. His head is bowed, prayerful. His eyes are damp. He is weary, but as he reaches the pinnacle of the bridge over the Alabama River and looks out to the other side, a burden lifts. He sees a very different world from March 7, 1965, when he was a slender and serious young man of 25 who helped lead a group of more than 600 marchers across the bridge toward Montgomery to demand the right to vote.
Photograph by Michele Cohen Marill
It became known as “Bloody Sunday,” one of the defining moments of the civil rights movement. As the marchers crossed the Pettus Bridge, they were attacked by Alabama state troopers armed with clubs, tear gas and cattle prods. The televised images of the police brutality stunned the nation and mobilized support for the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Today, almost 40 years later, the 63-year-old Lewis-now a U.S. congressman from Atlanta-is again greeted by Alabama state troopers. Only now they have stopped traffic to protect the phalanx of marchers.
The crowd halts, hushes. The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth stretches his arms wide to offer a blessing. An air of respect falls upon them; Shuttlesworth, a civil rights icon, once faced off against the infamous Bull Connor in Birmingham. His hair is graying now, but his voice is still strong and his presence is uplifting.
“We didn’t get where we are from our own strength,” Shuttlesworth cries.
Amen, the throng answers.
“So many times, you have delivered us from the jaws of death.”
“So thank you, Lord, that you are the deliverer.”
“Neither the Red Sea nor the Selma bridge could stop your purpose.”
“Thank you for moving human history and letting me know that you are the power.”
“Thank you, Lord.”
Thank you, Lord!
John Lewis raises his head and marches forward, past the spot where a trooper cracked his skull with a nightstick and knocked him unconscious as screaming marchers tumbled over each other, trying to escape the blows and the suffocating clouds of tear gas.
He comes back here every other year to march again. Every year, he sanctifies those moments of terror. Every year, he seeks to regain something precious he possessed on that bridge. “I come back to be inspired,” says Lewis. “I come back to renew my own self, my own being. I come back to get my own sense of hope.”
Lewis has lost his hair, and the old scar from the Pettus Bridge beating is now visible on his shiny pate. Over the years the pounds have rounded his 5-foot-6 frame, and he has deep creases beneath his eyes. But beyond the natural effects of aging, his old friends from the civil rights movement find that he has changed very little. He still speaks with the inflection of rural Alabama, with a preacher-like musical cadence, and, when necessary, with indignant force. He still remembers who was with him each step of the way, from the children who joined the marches, to the singers who chanted “Freedom Songs,” to the leaders by his side.
The world around him, though, has transformed. In 1965, Selma had only a handful of black voters. Today, it has a black mayor. Back then, espousing an interracial society was dangerous and radical. Today, when Lewis speaks of an America without a fixation on race, he just sounds hopelessly Utopian.
His congressional office in downtown Atlanta is crammed with mementos of Lewis’ place in history. In one framed photo, a trooper in Selma is poised to strike a blow with his nightstick as Lewis, on his knees, tries to shield his head. Miniature chickens are scattered on a shelf, reminding Lewis of his rural roots. Beside them rests another photo, this on with a pose of the “Big Six,” the six civil rights leaders who planned the March on Washington 40 years ago this month: Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, Whitney Young and John Lewis. Of them, only Lewis is still alive.
On all his walls, the past is frozen in a black and white panorama. But to Lewis, those photos catalog just the first steps in a very long march toward a better world. And he’s still marching. Fighting for health care for the uninsured, protection of the environment, campaign reform-those are some of his “civil rights” planks of the 21st century. Opposing the war in Iraq and tax cuts for the rich-those votes are a matter of principle. “Laying down the burden of race” is his ultimate quest. He sees it as the redemption of the American soul, and he wants to bring people of all races together into a colorblind society that he refers to as the “Beloved Community.”
“If I’m the last dreamer, if I’m the last person to believe in the Beloved Community, then I will be that last dreamer,” he says in a voice suddenly rising in passion. “Because I think the idea of a Beloved Community is one of those immutable principles that you cannot deviate from.” Since his election in 1986, he has been dubbed the “conscience of Congress.” But in 2003, those accolades don’t necessarily mean very much. These days, it’s not enough to remain true to the dreams that he and King and the other civil rights crusaders outlined. In a world of skepticism and self-interest, he must prove that it is still relevant and worthy to dream at all.
John Lewis rises at 5 a.m. every morning, reads the newspapers, and takes a little time to gather his thoughts. When in Atlanta, he listens to a gospel station. The words of one song with a jaunty beat has captured his imagination: Don‘t let the devil steal your joy. That sentiment lightens his step as he walks to the Cannon House Office Building on his way to morning meetings. “I made up my mind that I’m not going to let anyone steal my sense of happiness or joy,” he says. So even when the nation is fighting a war he opposes and the president has cut a program he cherishes, he tries to keep an upbeat demeanor. Hopeful, if not happy.
“People have accused me of being too optimistic,” he says. “Not to be hopeful is to give up. If you believe that things are going to change, you have to make it come about. You cannot get lost in a sea of despair.” That is a good perspective for someone who is charged with raising the morale of the minority party. As senior chief deputy whip, third in line in party leadership, Lewis’s eternal optimism makes him the perfect standard-bearer for the Democrats, who have been out of power in the House since the Republican revolution of 1994.
Lewis unapologetically represents the liberal wing of the Democratic Party-the National Journal labeled him the third most liberal member of the House. But his life transcends his role as a lawmaker. He is a genuine American hero, a living symbol of the worst and greatest moments of a nation. “He has endured the test of time,” says the Reverend Jesse Jackson. “John has moral authority. He speaks with a moral resonance. I admire him. I look up to him, really.
It is that moral dictate that defines Lewis both personally and politically. When Newt Gingrich became embroiled in ethics violations, Lewis was one of his fiercest critics. When Bill Clinton faced impeachment for improprieties, Lewis was his staunchest ally. Politics as usual, some sneered. But then comes an issue-campaign finance reform, for example-in which Lewis breaks ranks with the Congressional Black Caucus or allies with a Republican conservative.
Last year, Lewis publicly forgave Senator Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) for his statements lauding the segregationist past of Senator Strom Thurmond (R-South Carolina). It was a metaphorical moment in which he could forgive white Southerners for their misguided hatred. “It’s very much in keeping with the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence to believe that people can change,” says Lewis. “We wanted to change people and for them to be reconciled to us.”
His efforts to educate the nation are relentless. Every other year, he takes a congressional entourage on a civil rights pilgrimage to Alabama, sponsored by The Faith & Politics Institute, an interfaith group he co-chairs with a Republican congressman. The Trent Lott affair put the trip in the spotlight this year, and it attracted two U.S. senators, presidential candidate Richard Gephardt, Democratic Caucus chair Robert Menendez, about 25 other representatives, former Housing and Urban Development secretary Jack Kemp and comedian Chris Tucker.
At 63, Lewis is a lion in winter, hoping today’s young people are ready to carry on. He was heartened one day this spring when he walked from the Capitol to the U.S. Supreme Court and stood before hundreds of college students rallying in support of affirmative action.
“It appears another generation of students has been awakened to be active,” Lewis said after the rally. “It reminded me of the sixties, really, when young students, black and white, cared enough to go on a Freedom Ride.”
Yet, ironically, the rally was sponsored by a group called BAMN-By Any Means Necessary. The national student group takes its title from a slogan of Malcolm X-who espoused a black power creed, the antithesis of Lewis’ Beloved Community.
Like BAMN, not everyone agrees with Lewis’ expansive worldview. In 1995, Georgia State Representative Tyrone Brooks mobilized Georgians to join the Million Man March and begged Lewis to join him. Brooks envisioned a powerful movement where black men accepted personal responsibility, where they would rid themselves of abusive behaviors and join together for greater good. But Lewis couldn’t reconcile King’s dream with minister Louis Farrakhan’s black power stand, his vilifying comments about Jews, whites and homosexuals.
“He wanted it to be all male,” says Lewis. “He wanted it to be all black. I didn’t want to be associated with it.”
Lewis is standing in the cramped preacher’s office of First Baptist Church in Montgomery. As if it happened just yesterday, he can see Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sitting in the chair and greeting him for the first time.
Lewis’ deep voice echoes in the woodpaneled basement as he recreates the moment. “Are you the boy from Troy? Are you John Lewis?”
“Yes, sir. I am John Robert Lewis.” With that greeting, Lewis announced his entry into a lifelong pursuit for social justice.
He was born on February 21,1940 on a tenant farm in Troy, Alabama, a place of cotton fields, dirt roads and pine forests. One day, he saw the signs at the bus station marking the restrooms “White Men,” “Colored Men,” “White Women,” “Colored Women,” and he asked his parents, “Why?”
“That’s the way it is,” they said.
Lewis has never accepted that answer. As a teenager, he listened to Dr. King on the radio. He learned about Rosa Parks. His activism began when he was 16 and went to the county library to ask for a library card. The librarian told him the library was for whites only.
The need to do something burned in him. He enrolled at American Baptist Theological Seminary, a small black school in Nashville that gave ministerial students their education, room and board in exchange for work. But he hadn’t even finished his first year when he applied for a transfer to Troy State College, an all-white college 10 miles from his home. He got no response.
Lewis wrote to Dr. King, telling him of his desire to go to Troy State. The civil rights leader sent him a bus ticket to Montgomery, and Lewis met with King in that church basement. Just 18 years old, scrawny and naive but bold, Lewis stood in awe.
King said they would help him attempt to integrate Troy State-if his parents agreed. Fearing a backlash that could threaten their lives, Lewis’ parents said no.
He returned to Nashville, where Lewis learned about nonviolent philosophy and became involved with the budding student-led civil rights movement in the city. The Nashville students merged into the new, national Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which Lewis would eventually lead. By 1959, he was organizing biracial sit-ins at Nashville’s whites-only lunch counters. Getting arrested became commonplace; he was beaten or abused untold times. “We’d be sitting there in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion, waiting to be served,” he says. “And someone would come up and spit on us. Put a lighted cigarette out in our hair or down our backs. Pull us off the lunch counter stool. Beat us.”
The protesters refused to strike back. They accepted nonviolence as a way of life. “Means and ends are inseparable,” says Lewis. “If you want to create the Beloved Community, then the way must be one of love, one of peace, one of nonviolence.”
In 1961, Lewis was the youngest of a group of black and white activists who climbed aboard a Greyhound bus and a Trailways bus in Washington, D.C., headed for a “Freedom Ride” through the Deep South to test the U.S. Supreme Court decision that banned segregation in terminals used for interstate travel. At each stop, blacks would enter the whites-only waiting rooms, restrooms and lunch counters.
On the first leg of the Freedom Ride, Lewis was punched in the face as he tried to enter a bus terminal in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He had to temporarily leave the procession after that, but planned to link back up with the Freedom Riders in Birmingham. The next day, the Greyhound reached Anniston, Alabama. A mob surrounded it and when the bus driver decided to drive away, about 50 cars followed in hot pursuit. They caught the bus and attacked the windows with pipes. Someone threw a firebomb into the bus and the mob blocked the doors until a policeman riding on the bus pulled his gun and threatened to shoot unless they backed away.
Riders on the Trailways bus were attacked in Anniston, but managed to escape and drive on to Birmingham. What they didn’t know was that another mob was waiting there to ambush them. The Birmingham police had promised the mob 15 unmolested minutes alone with the protesters before they would intercede. When the bus reached Birmingham, the riders were pulled off and brutally beaten.
Lewis and 10 other Nashville students were aboard another Greyhound bus bound for Birmingham two days later. Police commissioner Bull Connor met them at the station, jailed them briefly and then personally led a convoy of three unmarked police station wagons to drive them out of town. He dropped them off at the Tennessee line in the middle of the night.
Lewis and the others from Nashville made a jubilant return to Birmingham the next day, boldly defying Bull Connor. With frantic phone calls and intervention from President Kennedy, the riders boarded another Greyhound bus headed to Montgomery, this time escorted by a phalanx of Alabama state troopers.
The city police promised to protect the Freedom Riders, so the troopers let them go into the Alabama capital alone. But the police mysteriously disappeared just as the bus arrived and the mob attacked just as Lewis stepped off the
bus to address a throng of reporters. Lewis was bashed in the back of the head with a Coca-Cola crate and knocked unconscious. He later took refuge in the First Baptist Church, the very place he had first met King.
“I don’t think I’ve seen another leader who put himself in harm’s way more than John for the cause,” says Bernard LaFayette Jr., a Nashville classmate of Lewis who now runs the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island. “I really didn’t expect him to survive the Movement. He was undaunted. It bordered on foolish courage.”
By August 28, 1963, the lurid images from the South had stirred the nation. Thousands of people ascended on Washington, D.C. for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the greatest moment of the civil rights movement. An estimated 300,000 people spilled out onto the grass and pavement around the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial. It was one of the first news events to ever be broadcast live on television.
The speakers were to be the elite figures of the movement, and one of them was to be John Lewis. He planned to criticize the Kennedy Civil Rights Bill as “too little, too late.” Yet, the point of the whole march was to support the bill. And frantic civil rights leaders lobbied Lewis all week to tone down his speech.
As Joan Baez sang “Oh Freedom” and as Bob Dylan joined Peter, Paul and Mary for “Blowing in the Wind,” the fierce debate continued behind the speaker’s platform. Lewis finally agreed to take out the offensive language. Still, his words were fierce and to the point. “We must say, ‘Wake up, America! Wake up!'” Lewis told the massive crowd. “For we cannot stop, and we will not be patient.”
Then, sitting in the shadow of Lincoln, a few steps away from the podium, Lewis listened to King’s majestic voice intone the words that would echo through the ages: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood… “
It was the doctrine of the Beloved Community.
At a party on New Year’s Eve in 1967, a friend introduced Lewis to a woman from Los Angeles named Lillian Miles, who worked at Atlanta University as the assistant circulation librarian.
Less than a year later, Lewis asked her to marry him, and the couple settled into the modest home in Southwest Atlanta where they still live today. They adopted a son, John-Miles Lewis, and Lewis began working for voter education. Under President Jimmy Carter he had served as associate director of ACTION, helping to run a service agency that functioned as a domestic Peace Corps.
Lewis won a seat on the Atlanta City Council, then ran for U.S. Congress in 1986 in a field of 12 candidates. “A workhorse, not a showhorse” became his slogan and it was aimed at just one opponent-Julian Bond, the most glamorous of the civil rights icons who also happened to be Lewis’ close friend back from the days when Bond was SNCC’s communications director. Bond had even helped polish the speech that Lewis wrote for the March on Washington.
Bond vs. Lewis.
The match-up evoked nothing but pain for Atlanta ‘s black community. Some people were angry at Lewis. “You shouldn’t do this,” they said. “You can’t win.” He received very little support from his fellow black elected officials.
Lewis campaigned with a dogged tenacity, sometimes stopping at all-night grocery stores after midnight to shake a few more hands. He battled Bond to a runoff. Tensions rose higher when Bond challenged Lewis to debate. “He was accused of being cowardly, ducking debates,” recalls Kevin Ross, a political consultant who guided Lewis through those weeks. “The concept of being called cowardly really seemed to get under John’s skin.”
And that’s when Lewis did something that contradicted his gentle, saintly image: He went low-brow and challenged Julian Bond, his friend, to take a drug test. “We can go outside and go to the men’s room and take the test right now,” Lewis said at one point.
Bond tried to deflect it, but the drug test challenge amplified the whispers that swirled about him. It was a time of “Just Say No,” of rampant cocaine use among the famous and wealthy. The drug test challenge became the key moment of the campaign.
If the negative campaigning seems out of character with Lewis’ saintly image-a win-at-any-cost, even the loss of a close friend, mindset-he still makes no apologies. He thinks Bond fired the first salvo by implying that Lewis, who had taken pipes in the face, was a coward. “I think a lot of people thought because I’m such a nice guy, I would be a pushover,” Lewis says. “But if you push me in the corner, I will push back, in the most nonviolent manner I know how.”
Lewis won with 52 percent of the vote. The relationship between Bond and Lewis has never recovered. Lewis’ memoir, Walking with the Wind, published in 1998, portrays Bond as someone reluctant to lead and overly enamored of the limelight. Bond, who is now national chairman of the NAACP and a professor at American University and the University of Virginia, lauds Lewis for doing “a excellent job, a wonderful job” as congressman. He teaches his college students about Lewis’ acts of bravery. But he also acknowledges that all is not well between the two. “I was terribly upset by the attacks and by the characterization of me in his book,” says Bond.
For his part, Lewis does not express regret about how he conducted the campaign. But he does seem genuinely wistful about the impact it had on a longstanding friendship. “I never, ever want to go through another campaign like that,” says Lewis. “I never, ever want to be in a campaign against someone 1 consider a friend.”
Julian Bond is the last opponent of consequence that Lewis has faced. With every term, his job becomes more secure. He was unopposed in his ninth election in 2002, and the job is likely to be his as long as he wants it. “He always says he’s ‘ going to cut back, and he doesn’t cut back,” says his wife, Lillian, without reproach. “Sometimes, he’ll come to the point and say, ‘Oh, I think may stay two years or four years.’ But most often he says he plans to be carried out of the Capitol feet first. I think that’s really how he feels about it.”
She says they have a comfortable marriage even though he spends much of his time in Washington, D.C. while she stays in Atlanta. “My niece said that I’ve made a life that’s comfortable for me as he has for himself,” Lillian says. “John was that person before I met him. I’m not a clingy person. His life makes him happy.”
His district has become his own Beloved Community, where people stop him in the streets and thank him for some help he has given them. Yet Lewis’ appeal stems not just from his politics or his idealism, or even his heroism. He is the quintessential “nice guy.” At a fundraising event during the NBA All-Star Weekend in Atlanta, Lewis noticed some of the waiters gazing in awe at comedian Chris Tucker. Lewis walked over, then took them to meet Tucker.
One thing that people don’t know about Lewis is that he loves to make people laugh. He is an excellent mimic of voices. He will tease his wife about being an “armchair revolutionary” because she grew up in Los Angeles and watched the civil rights movement unfold on television. “I don’t think his sense of humor comes across in public,” she says. “He’s not a joke-teller. But he makes observations about people and how they really are.”
On one Saturday last spring, Lewis was in high spirits as he strode through the downtown Macy’s just before it closed its doors for good, eager to check out the bargains in the store’s waning days. Every few steps he paused to give his condolences to the store clerks-whom he knew by name-or to shake a few hands.
Lewis occasionally holds a Constituent Day, when anyone can make an appointment to talk to him in the district office. He prides himself on personally greeting any visitor from the state who happens by his Capitol office-peanut farmers from South Georgia, insurance underwriters from Albany, teachers from Macon. “I see ‘em because they’re from Georgia,” he says.
In his congressional office, the New South comes to greet him, and he embraces this cavalcade. This is the world as he wants it to be: one family, one house, the American house.
Late at night, when Congress has adjourned and his wife is still in Atlanta, John Lewis emerges from his Washington, D.C. townhouse and takes a long walk. There may be a song in his head, or the voices from some debate, or a problem that’s bothering him.
Eventually, he’ll end up at the marble monuments to America’s historical leaders. He’ll read the words they spoke that roused a nation, or calmed it. He’ll think about his own odd journey, from sharecropping poverty in Alabama to the halls of Congress. He’ll stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and hear King’s “I Have a Dream” speech echoing in his ears, as if the great man were still alive and speaking.
Lewis hopes to be back at the speaker’s platform for the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington, where he’ll exhort the nation to march on toward a Beloved Community.
But his real commemoration will come after the crowds are gone. He plans to walk alone to the steps of the monument and stare up at the larger-than-life statue of Lincoln. “I want to go back and stand where we stood on August 28, 1963,” he says. “Reflect on the words of Dr. King.”
The past will swirl around him, not as something haunting, but as a force. The spirit of history, Lewis calls it. The spirit of hope.
It keeps him marching forever on.