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Rep. John Lewis on the Freedom Rides, Surviving KKK Attacks, 1963 March on Washington & Malcolm X

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Civil rights movement icon and 17-term Democratic Congressmember John Lewis, who died July 17 at the age of 80, helped found SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and was the youngest of the so-called Big Six who addressed the March on Washington in 1963. Before that, he was among the 13 original Freedom Riders who rode buses across the South to challenge segregation laws. He spoke to Democracy Now! in 2012 about his activism and that historic campaign, during which they were beaten and attacked by white mobs and the Klu Klux Klan, including by Klansman Elwin Wilson, who apologized to Lewis decades later. “It is so important for people to understand, to know that people suffered, struggled. Some people bled, and some died, for the right to participate,” Lewis told Democracy Now!

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to remember civil rights icon, 17-term Democratic Congressmember John Lewis, who died Friday at the age of 80 of pancreatic cancer. He appeared on Democracy Now! in 2012, talked about taking part in the Freedom Rides.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: On May 9th, 1961, my seat mate, a young white gentleman, we arrived at the Greyhound bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina. We got off the bus.

AMY GOODMAN: What were you doing there?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: We were testing the facilities — the lunch counters, the waiting room, the restroom facility. During those days, the stations were marked “white waiting,” “colored waiting,” “white men,” “colored men,” “white women,” “colored women.” And we were following a decision of the United States Supreme Court banning discrimination — or segregation in intrastate travel. And when we started to enter the so-called white waiting room, we were attacked by a group of young white men, beaten and left in a pool of blood. The local police officials came up and wanted to know whether we wanted to press charges. We said, “No, we believe in peace. We believe in love and nonviolence.”

Years later — to be exact, 48 years later — Mr. Wilson and his son came to my office in Washington and said, “Mr. Lewis, I’m one of the people that beat you. Will you forgive me? I apologize.” His son had been encouraging his father to do this. His son started crying. Mr. Wilson started crying. He hugged me. His son hugged me. I hugged them both back. Then all three of us stood there crying. That’s what the movement was about, to be reconciled.

AMY GOODMAN: When we hear about voting rights today, we don’t hear about these struggles that you and so many others that you led went through 50 years ago.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: That’s why it is so important for people to understand, to know that people suffered, struggled. Some people bled, and some died, for the right to participate. You know, the vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool that we have in a democratic society. It’s precious. It’s almost sacred. We have to use it. If not, we will lose it.

AMY GOODMAN: A few years after that, two years after you had your head slammed in and so many others were beaten in Montgomery, was the 1963 March on Washington. Dr. King spoke, and you also spoke. I want to go to a clip of that moment.

JOHN LEWIS: To those who have said, “Be patient and wait,” we must say that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now. We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again, and then you holler, “Be patient.” How long can we be patient? We want our freedom, and we want it now.

We do not want to go to jail, but we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood and true peace. I appeal to all of you to get in this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation, until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete. We must get in this revolution and complete the revolution, for in the Delta of Mississippi, in Southwest Georgia, in the Black Belt of Alabama, in Harlem, in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and all over this nation, the Black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom.

They’re talking about slow down and stop. We will not stop. All of the forces of Eastland, Barnett, Wallace, and Thurmond will not stop this revolution. If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our march into Washington. We will march through the South, through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham. But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today.

By the forces of our demands, our determination and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces, put them together in the image of God and democracy. We must say, “Wake up, America! Wake up!” for we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.

AMY GOODMAN: That remarkable speech that you gave on August 28th, 1963. You were the youngest speaker at the March on Washington. You spoke before Dr. King.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I spoke number six. Dr. King was the last speaker. He spoke number 10. That day, when A. Philip Randolph introduced me, and he said, “And I present to you, young John Lewis, national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,” I looked to my right, I saw many other young people sort of cheering me on; looked to my left, and I saw young people up in the trees trying to get a better view of the crowd; then I looked straight ahead, and I said to myself, “This is it. I must do my best.” And that’s what I tried to do.

When I was working on the speech, I was reading a copy of The New York Times, and I saw a group of Black women in southern Africa carrying signs saying, “One Man, One Vote.” So in my March on Washington speech, I said, “'One man, one vote' is the African cry; it is ours, too. It must be ours.” And that became the rallying cry for many other young people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, you had to change that speech that you gave on that day.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I was asked to change the speech. Some people thought the speech was too radical, too militant. I thought it was a speech for the occasion. It represented the people that we were working with. Some people didn’t like the use of the word “revolution” or the use of the phrase “Black masses.” A. Philip Randolph came to my rescue and said, “There’s not anything wrong with the use of 'revolution.' I use it myself sometimes. There’s not anything with 'Black masses.'” So we kept that part in the speech. But near the end of the speech, I said something like, “If we do not see meaningful progress here today, the day may come when we will be forced to march through the South the way Sherman did — nonviolently.” And people thought we couldn’t make a reference to Sherman, and so we deleted that.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to play Danny Glover reading the excerpts of the speech that you didn’t give.

DANNY GLOVER: “To those who have said, 'Be patient and wait,' we must say that 'patience' is a dirty and nasty word. We cannot be patient. We do not want to be free gradually. We want our freedom, and we want it now. We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence. …

“We won’t stop now. All of the forces of Eastland, Barnett, Wallace and Thurmond won’t stop the revolution. The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South, through the Heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own 'scorched earth' policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground!”

AMY GOODMAN: John Lewis, you also said a part that didn’t get included was: “In good conscience, we cannot support the administration’s civil rights bill, for it’s too little, too late. There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality.”

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I thought, and I believe, that the proposed civil rights bill was not enough. President Kennedy took the position that if a person had a sixth grade education, that person should be considered literate and should able to register to vote. Those of us in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee took the position that the only qualification for being able to register to vote in America should be that of age and residency, nothing more or anything less. We wanted a much stronger bill.

But the whole idea of the march was not to support a particular piece of legislation. It was a march for jobs and freedom. It was a coalition of conscience to say to the Congress and say to the president of the United States, “You must act.” We didn’t think that the proposed bill was commensurate to all of the suffering, to the beatings, to the jailing, to the killing that had occurred in the South.

AMY GOODMAN: Just before Malcolm X was assassinated, John Lewis met with him in Africa. They spent several days together. I asked John Lewis where they met, what they talked about.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: We met Malcolm in Nairobi, Kenya, at the New Stanley Hotel. He happened to be staying there — we didn’t know he was staying there — and we were also staying there. We were on our way to Zambia for their independence celebration. And we had an opportunity to talk and chat with him about what was going on in America. And I think at that time Malcolm was seeking to find a way to identify with the Southern civil rights movement. He wanted to be helpful, wanted to be supportive. And as a matter of fact, he came to Selma. He came to Selma, February the 14th, 1965. And we were in jail, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the local authority refused to let him come and meet with us. He spoke at the Brown Chapel AME Church with Mrs. King to a group of high school students. And seven days later, he was assassinated.

AMY GOODMAN: On February 21st, 1965, he was gunned down.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I will never forget it, because February 21st is my birthday. And I was in a car on my way from southwest Georgia.

AMY GOODMAN: You were 25 years old.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Twenty-five. And I was going from southwest Georgia through Atlanta back to Selma, when we heard that he had been shot. I came to New York, attended the service for him.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your assessment of the significance of Malcolm X?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I think Malcolm played a major role in helping to educate, inform and dramatize the need for mass movement. People read about him. Many of the young people, Black and white, read his story. Many did not agree necessarily with his techniques or his tactic. But if Malcolm had lived, I am convinced that he would have been part of the Southern nonviolent wing of the civil rights movement.

AMY GOODMAN: And his relationship with Dr. King? What did Dr. King think?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I remember Malcolm being in the hotel, before we even saw him in Kenya, the night of the March on Washington — the evening before the March on Washington. He was at the Hilton Hotel in Washington. Now, he didn’t like the way the march turned out, because he said it was like a picnic and that it was not strong enough.

AMY GOODMAN: And he wasn’t invited to speak.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: He was not invited to speak. We — I didn’t have anything to do with that decision.

AMY GOODMAN: After the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Act were signed, Dr. King increasingly started speaking out against the Vietnam War — his inner circle saying, “Don’t give that speech at Riverside Church,” April 4th, 1967, a year to the day before he was assassinated in Memphis, the “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam” speech. “You’ve got the president of the United States behind you. You got him to sign the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act,” they said to Dr. King. “Don’t take him on in a war that is not ours.” Yet he defied them and said it is. Were you a part of that circle? What position did you take, John Lewis?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I supported the position of Martin Luther King Jr. As chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, during that time, we had already taken a position against the war in Vietnam. So many of the young people in SNCC, so many of the young people that we were working with all across the South were being drafted and going off to Vietnam, so we came out against the war in January 1966.

But I was there at Riverside Church on the night of April 4th, 1967, when he spoke. And I think that speech is one of the greatest speeches. A lot of people speak about the March on Washington. It was a wonderful speech. But the speech against the war in Vietnam, Dr. King — he said, “I’m not going to segregate my conscience. If I’m against violence at home, I’m against violence abroad.” And he went on to say that America was the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. He was — he was a preacher. He was a prophet.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you agree with him?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I agree with him.

AMY GOODMAN: That the U.S. is the greatest purveyor of violence.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: We have more — we spend hundreds and thousand, millions and billions of dollars on weaponry. We’re supplying the world. We sell arms to everybody. Dr. King was saying that we have to put an end to this madness. He was influenced by Gandhi, and Gandhi said it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. Dr. King went on to say, “We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters, or we will perish as fools.” He was saying, in effect, that we have enough bombs and missiles and guns to destroy the planet. He said it then, and it’s still true today.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, today, the War in Afghanistan, the drone war that President Obama is conducting in Pakistan, in Yemen, in other places, with the “kill list,” that the Times called it, that he personally keeps and names the people he puts on the list — your thoughts?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, I think it’s time for us to end, end the efforts in Afghanistan. We cannot justify the killing of people that we don’t see. We don’t know anything about them, or very little. War is not the answer. War is obsolete. It cannot be used as a tool of our foreign policy. It’s barbaric. Someplace, somehow, people must come to that point and say, “I ain’t gonna stay the war no more.”

AMY GOODMAN: Have you talked to President Obama about this?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I have not had an opportunity. But I’ve spoken out on the floor of the House against the War in Afghanistan, as I did against the War in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: You voted in — three days after September 11, 2001, to give President Bush the authority to retaliate in a vote that was 420 to 1. You have described it was one of your toughest votes. Talk about how you decided to do that.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I was very disturbed about what happened on 9/11. And when I look back on it, if I had to do it all over again, I would have voted with Barbara Lee. It was raw courage on her part. So, because of that, I don’t vote for funding for war. I vote against preparation for the military. I will never again go down that road.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you say to those who say, “Then you’re not supporting the military. You’re not supporting the soldiers, the troops”?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I support the soldiers. When I see young men in uniform, I say, “Thank you for your service.” And I tell them, “I want all of you to come home.” I tell them to their faces. I see them in the airports. I see them in Washington. I say, “It’s time for you to come home.”

AMY GOODMAN: How did you decide to go from activist, real street-fighting activist — you, yourself, weren’t physically fighting, but you were being fought by the police every step of the way — to a congressmember? Talk about the moment you made that decision and the year you did. How old were you?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I made the decision after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. I was with Robert Kennedy in Indianapolis, Indiana, on the evening of April 4, 1968, when I heard that Dr. King had been shot. I didn’t know his condition until Robert Kennedy spoke at a rally that I was having to organize and said that Dr. King had been assassinated.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to that clip.

ROBERT F. KENNEDY: I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens and people who love peace all over the world. And that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Robert Kennedy in Indianapolis, breaking the news to so many. John Lewis, you were there.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I cried, with so many other people. And I said to myself, “We still have Bobby.” I went back to Atlanta, attended the funeral with Robert Kennedy and hundreds and thousands of others. After the funeral was over, I got back in the Kennedy campaign, went to Oregon and later to California. I campaigned for Bobby Kennedy with César Chávez. It was a wonderful effort. We went all over Los Angeles, going into wealthy neighborhoods, knocking on doors, urging people to vote for Bobby.

And that evening the primary was over, Bobby Kennedy came up to me and said, “John, I’m going downstairs to make my victory statement. Why don’t you remain?” I was in his suite with his sister, several other individuals, the brother of Medgar Evers. And we listened to Bobby, and he said, “On to Chicago.” And moments, minutes later, it was announced that he had been shot.

Dropped to the floor and cried and cried. I just wanted to get out of L.A. I got on a flight the next morning, flew to Atlanta, and I think I cried all the way from L.A. to Atlanta. And I came back to New York for the funeral. And before the funeral, I stood the night before as an honor guard with Reverend Ralph Abernathy. Then I rode the funeral train. The family asked me to ride with them from New York to Washington. And someplace along the way, I felt that somehow, in some way, I had to try to pick up where Dr. King and Robert Kennedy left off. These were my friends. These were my heroes. These were two young men that had inspired me. And some of my friends started encouraging me to get involved in electoral politics, do more than just register people, that I should run for office. And I made a decision years later to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, at the end of Across That Bridge, your new book, you write, “Just as Gandhi made it easier for King and King made it easier for Poland and Poland [made it easier] for Ireland [and] Ireland [made it easier] for Serbia [and] Serbia made it easier for the Arab Spring, [and] the Arab Spring made it easier for [the protests in] Wisconsin [and] Occupy…” Talk about these connections.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I believe there is something in human history — I call it the spirit of history. It’s like a spring, a stream, that continue to move. And individuals and forces come along that become symbols of what is good, what is right and what is fair. And that’s why I wrote this little book, to say to people that you, too, can allow yourself to be used by the spirit of history. Just find a way to get in the way. When I was growing up, my mother and father, my grandparents and great-grandparents were always telling me, “Don’t get in trouble. Don’t get in the way.” But I was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and others to get in the way, to get in trouble — good trouble, necessary trouble. And we all must find a way to have the courage to get in trouble, to do our part. Every generation must find a way to leave the planet, leave this little spaceship, Earth, this little piece of real estate, a little better than we found it — a little cleaner, a little greener and a little more peaceful. I think that’s our calling. We have a mission, a mandate and a moral obligation to do just that.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember John Lewis, speaking on Democracy Now! in 2012. He died Friday at the age of 80. To see the whole interview, go to democracynow.org.

When we come back, we remember another civil rights icon, C. T. Vivian, who also died Friday.

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