Fifty years after taking part in the Freedom Rides, Lewis issues a challenge for today's generation.
During the week of May 22-26, hundreds of Americans are expected to converge in Jackson, Miss., to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. Between May and December of 1961, the nonviolent protest against segregation in the Deep South -- which continued despite the Supreme Court's outlawing of such practices -- saw 436 black and white young people riding interstate buses together through the South, testing segregation laws.
For flouting rules on who could ride in the front of a bus or use waiting rooms designated "Whites Only" and "Colored," the Freedom Riders faced vicious mob attacks, slashed tires, firebombs and jail cells. Yet after persevering through more than 60 rides, they helped to hasten desegregation and ignite a nationwide movement for civil rights.
Among the Freedom Riders was a 21-year-old seminary student named John Lewis. He went on to chair the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, speak at the 1963 March on Washington, lead the voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery and represent Georgia's 5th District in the U.S. Congress, where he continues to serve today.
The civil rights icon shared his Freedom Ride experience with The Root, his anticipation about the 50th-anniversary reunion and the issue he wishes that more young people would mobilize around today.
The Root: Many people don't realize just how unpopular it was to join the civil rights movement at first. Most people at the time thought it was too risky or not worth the headache. What made you willing to join the Freedom Riders and face violent mobs for the cause?
John Lewis: As a student, and as someone who had grown up in rural Alabama, 50 miles from Montgomery, I had been deeply influenced by the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I didn't like seeing signs that said "White" and "Colored," and I wanted to do something about it.
A year earlier I'd participated in the sit-ins, and from that point forward I made a commitment to do whatever I could to end segregation and racial discrimination in America. I studied the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence, and I came to a point where I lost all sense of fear. I was prepared to put my body on the line, and I was prepared to die for what I believed in.
TR: How did you convince other people at the time to join the movement?
JL: I spent a tremendous amount of time telling my fellow schoolmates that we had to do something; we had to act. Sometimes I said, "Look what the young people in North Carolina are doing. Look at the young people at Central High School in Little Rock. If they can do it, we can do it, too." I convinced some of them to come with me to attend a nonviolence workshop.
TR: Did you ever worry, along the way on the Freedom Rides, that your efforts wouldn't work and that nothing would change?
JL: In keeping with the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence, you had to be hopeful. You had to be optimistic that things were going to work out. You had to make it work out.
TR: Next week, you and other Freedom Riders are retuning to Jackson. Have you stayed in touch with the others?
JL: I have stayed in touch with some of the individuals that I got to know very well 50 years ago. Some live in Atlanta, some live in Washington, and when I travel to other parts of the country, I run into some Freedom Riders.
On the other hand, I'll be seeing some for the first time in 50 years. It will be wonderful to see what people are doing. Many of us are still engaged and still trying to do our best to make our country and the world a better place.
TR: A lot of young people today want to "do something" to make a difference but don't feel they have a movement or distinct cause to join. What advice would you give them?
JL: There are still too many people in our society that are left out or left behind. I feel these young people must make a commitment to the long haul and be leaders -- not just for a season but for a lifetime -- to deal with the issues of poverty, hunger, violence and immigration. I don't think I have a blueprint or road map for them, but I would say be creative ... Find a way to make some noise, to speak up and speak out.
TR: Is there a particular issue that you'd like to see more people mobilize around today?
JL: I would love to see more people, especially young people, get involved in this whole issue of trying to demonize the Latino population. Too many of our brothers and sisters are being racially profiled because of their background, last name or the language they may speak. The state of Georgia is copying the state of Arizona, and I think there will be other states to follow the same path. When you take on the immigrant population, you're taking on all of us.
During the Freedom Rides, we were saying, in effect, you arrest one of us, you're going to arrest all of us. You beat 15 or 20 of us, then you're going to have to beat more than 400 of us. I see parallels between then and now. There must be a real movement to resist this attempt to say that people who come from another land are not one of us.
TR: There are theories that pushing for integration was the wrong thing to do -- that if your generation had instead fought harder for "separate but equal," then African Americans would have more self-determination and power. How do you respond to that argument?
JL: I happen to believe that our society must move toward the creation of a truly multiracial democracy -- that we're one people, one family, one house. As Dr. King would put it, we must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we perish as fools. I would love to see the day come when we can lay down the burden of race and just be human.
There are a lot of things we need to do in our own communities ourselves, but we do not live apart. We all live on this little piece of real estate together, and it's not just an African-American piece. The world is tied together.
TR: As an activist, you were an outsider, risking your life to push the establishment to respond to the needs and wants of the people. Since then you've held office in the Atlanta City Council, and now as a member of the U.S. Congress. How has going from an outsider to an insider changed your role and your thinking about effecting change?
JL: I don't think moving as an outsider-turned-insider, going from a protester and activist to someone in government, has changed my beliefs. I still protest; I still speak out. When immigrant workers held freedom rides several years ago, I rode a bus with them from Washington, D.C., to New York.
Since I've been in Congress, I've been arrested protesting against apartheid in South Africa and [arrested] twice at the Sudanese Embassy for protesting what was going on in Darfur. So I still get involved in marches and casting my lot with the downtrodden, the poor, the homeless, the workers.
I think I've been a strong voice in government for what I think is fair around children, education and our seniors. I've taken a stand on the whole question of health care, championing the health care bill that we were able to get through Congress, because I believe it's a right, not a privilege.
There are also little pieces of legislation. I worked for more than 15 years for the creation of a Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall. I also got legislation passed to make the highway between Selma and Montgomery part of a national trail so generations to come can understand what happened on that highway, and know that people gave a little blood there to make it possible for everyone to become full participants in the Democratic process.
TR: Do you think more activists should run for political office?
JL: I think people have to make their own decision for what they want to do. They must have what I call an executive session with themselves and decide whether they want to be strictly an activist or whether they can play both roles. I encourage people to participate on all levels. We need people out there to make noise, to ask the necessary questions and to push. But we also need some people to be inside and sit at the table.
TR: Do you feel that you, and others of your generation, accomplished everything you set out to do in the civil rights movement?
JL: We did not accomplish everything because we're not finished. But we did accomplish a great deal. We broke down those signs that said "White Waiting," "Colored Waiting," "White Men," "Colored Women." The only places that our young people, and people yet to be born, will see those signs is in a book, in a museum or in a video.
We changed America. Before the movement, and during the period of the Freedom Rides, in so many parts of the American community -- especially the American South -- people were afraid to be afraid. That fear is gone. People can walk, live, work and play with a sense of dignity and a sense of pride.
TR: In February, President Obama awarded you the Medal of Freedom. What did that mean for you?
JL: I was very moved by receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. I accepted it not just for myself but on behalf of countless individuals, black and white. Many individuals whose names never appeared in the paper or magazines, many whose faces never appeared on a television screen but who were there, standing in those immovable lines, suffering the beatings, the arrests, the jailings. And some of those who died in the struggle. So it was not just an honor bestowed on me. It was an honor bestowed on the movement for justice in America.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.