The murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968 nearly killed John Lewis. The men were models for the young man from Troy, Ala., now in his 12th term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Lewis plans to serve as long as voters in Georgia’s 5th district will allow. Retirement, he said, “is not in my DNA.”
In 1961, Lewis was a student at American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville when he became one of the original Freedom Riders. A new PBS “American Experience” documentary will air May 16. The Freedom Riders, including several Atlantans, will appear on today’s “Oprah Winfrey Show” to mark the 50th anniversary of the start of the Freedom Rides.
The Congress of Racial Equality started the rides to test how federal interstate travel laws prohibiting segregation were being enforced in the Deep South. Riders suffered beatings in several cities and were jailed in Jackson, Miss., for “breach of the peace.”
In a interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WSB radio, Lewis recounted his time as a Freedom Rider and discussed how social activism led him to a career in politics. Here are excerpts:
“Nashville students thought they had the best organized local movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would come to Nashville and speak sometimes on the Fisk University campus, for the students at Tennessee State, Meharry Medical College, Vanderbilt, American Baptist College. And he said that the students there had a deeper understanding of the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence. And we had studied for an entire school year the way of nonviolence.
“For four years I had traveled by bus from going from rural Alabama to Montgomery, Montgomery to Birmingham, Birmingham to Nashville and I saw the segregation, the racial discrimination. I saw those signs that said white waiting, colored waiting; white men, colored men...and I wanted to do something about it. And the Freedom Rides was my opportunity to do something about it.”
“I never told my parents that I was preparing to go on the Freedom Rides. During the sit-ins (of 1960) they discovered I had been arrested and gone to jail a few times in Nashville. And my mother wrote me a letter, and she said (she called me Robert) “Dear Robert, I thought you went to school to get an education; you need to get out of that mess. You’re gonna get hurt.” I wrote her a letter back and said, ‘Dear Mother, I’ve acted according to the dictates of my conscience.’ I don’t think she knew what I was talking about. This is something that I have to do.
“My seatmate was a young white gentleman named Albert Bigelow. He was from Connecticut. Wonderful man. We arrived in a little town called Rock Hill, S.C. We got off the bus and started into a so-called white waiting room and the moment we started through the door a group of young white men attacked us and started beating us and left us in a pool of blood. We were asked if we wanted to press charges. We said no.”
“In the meantime, I was supposed to graduate from college that June. But I was on the ride in May. I had applied to go abroad to India or to East Africa, something like a Peace Corps type. And I was supposed to fly from Charlotte, N.C., to Philadelphia for my physical and sort of my last interview. I was supposed to rejoin the ride in Montgomery, Ala. But they never made it to Montgomery because of the burning of the bus between Atlanta and Birmingham at Anniston, Ala. And the beating of the people on the Trailways bus in Birmingham.”
“So I went back to Nashville and waited there. And a group of us in Nashville, met with the adults and told them we needed $900 to $1,000. We were going to continue the rides. We met on a Sunday night and they told us no, it would be like committing suicide. And we begged and we pleaded and finally they made a decision to make $900 available to us for 10 tickets and for food along the way.”
On what led him to enter politics: “My involvement in the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, the march from Selma to Montgomery have been the driving force. When I was younger I spent a lot of time going to Washington. I remember the first time going there for the Freedom Rides, then going back there for the March on Washington and to meet with President Kennedy.
Lewis on his achievements: “I have not accomplished everything I wanted to. I would like to, before I leave this little piece of real estate, do a little more for the cause of peace. To end the violence here at home and violence abroad. We spend so much of our resources killing each other.
On personal criticism of President Obama: “Sometimes I feel like all these people should go through nonviolent training...I don’t understand it. It’s just people are at the point where they want to find any fault they can find of this man. I think part of it is pure racism, pure bigotry. They cannot make the adjustment. They feel threatened. They have this smart, brilliant young man as president of the United States of America. And the handwriting is on the wall, the demographics are changing. In a short time, the minority will be the majority in America. It’s a different world, they’ve got to learn to come together. As soon as we learn and make that great leap, the better we will be as a nation and as people.”
The PBS “American Experience” documentary “Freedom Riders” will debut at 9 p.m. May 16. The film will feature U.S. Rep. Lewis and several other Atlantans. A reenactment of the Freedom Rides begins May 6 with college students from across the nation, including two from Georgia: JoyEllen Freeman from the University of Georgia and Kaitlyn Whiteside from Georgia Tech.