Q&A with U.S. Rep. John Lewis about his new book, 'Across That Bridge'

There's a photograph of the late President John F. Kennedy sailing on his beloved Victura on the wall of U.S. Rep. John Lewis' 19th-floor office that bares this quote: "One man can make a difference and every man should try."

It is one of many pearls of wisdom scattered about the elder statesman's Atlanta office, but it is this single sentiment that beats throughout "Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change," Lewis' latest book on his life and the civil rights movement for which he is known.

At 72, the civil rights icon is still doing what he can to make a difference, to move us one step closer to the "beloved community" he dreamed of while growing up in rural Pike County, Ala., and talks about every chance he gets.

And so it isn't surprising the idea for "Across That Bridge" (Hyperion, $22.99), now in bookstores, came to him during a conversation with a book editor who'd just heard him address a group of middle school students visiting the United Nations.

"She suggested that I write about some of the lessons I'd learned," Lewis recalled recently.

Lewis said he soon realized there was a whole generation of young people and some not so young who could benefit from knowing that the movement didn't just happen.

"We didn't just wake up one morning and say we were going to march. We prepared ourselves," he said.

For his part, that preparation began on his parents' farm, where he and his eight siblings picked cotton, gathered peanuts and raised chickens and John Robert Lewis dreamed of becoming a preacher.

"It was a different world, a different life," he said. "In spite of the difficulties, my family was a very warm and loving family. I had all these first cousins and aunts and uncles. It was the essence of the 'beloved community.' "

Still, he said, he was bothered by the segregation and racial discrimination of the time.

"I didn't like it," he said.

And so he determined to prepare to get in the way.

In 1958, he left home to attend American Baptist Theological Seminary in Tennessee, where every Tuesday he met with a group of students at nearby Fisk University to engage in philosophical discussions about nonviolent protest and civil disobedience.

When the sit-ins began in 1960, Lewis said they got a call from a local minister asking what they could do to support the movement.

Thus began John Lewis' long walk into national prominence.

Recently in a wide-ranging interview in his downtown office, he talked about the making of the movement and his latest book.

He said he hopes it will inspire each of us to do something to make life better for others. Here's what else he had to say:

Q: You say social transformation begins within. Do you recall the moment when you came to that realization?

A: Not the precise moment, but along the way, through training, discipline and testing, I accepted the philosophy of nonviolence as a way of life. If you're going to build the "beloved community," then you have to have peace with yourself and believe that there is a spark of the divine in every human being and we're called to respect that and not destroy or abuse it.

Q: Your goal in participating in the movement was to help create the "beloved community" you talk about in the book. What exactly did that entail?

A: The "beloved community" is one that respects the dignity and worth of every human being. So if the end is the "beloved community," the means must be one of love. There's no room for division and schisms and separation. There is no place for putting someone down because of their color or their class.

Q: How close are we to reaching that goal?

A: We're not there. We still have a distance to go. Some of my friends and colleagues ask if the election of President Obama was the fulfillment of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream. It was a down payment because there are still too many people left behind and left out. They're black. They're white. They're Latino and Asian. So many people still can't afford to see a doctor. Too many children go without food. Too many of our young people aren't getting the best education.

Q: Is there one thing that each of us can do to move closer to becoming the "beloved community"?

A: One thing we all can do is just be kind to each other. Just treat each other like we're all brothers and sisters because in the final analysis, we're all family. As Dr. King said, we must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we will perish as fools.

Q: You devote an entire chapter to faith. What part has it played in your own life?

A: Faith has played a significant part in keeping me grounded. Sometimes I feel like a tree, planted by the rivers of water. It's that feeling that the wind may blow but I'm going to continue to stand; the sense that I'm anchored and nothing but nothing is going to deter me. I believe in my gut that right will prevail, that good will prevail over evil.

Q: Finally, what truths do you hope we'll glean from "Across That Bridge" and apply to our own lives?

A: More than anything, as John F. Kennedy said, "One person can make a difference." One person with an idea can help change a community, a city, a state, a nation, a world.