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September 26, 2007

History in the Flesh

I met Representative John Lewis (D-GA) today.  I know, not a Washington story, but one, I believe, well worth sharing.  For those who don't know, Congressman Lewis is a living icon of the civil rights movement.  Rather than give you his background, I want to share his narrative.

I'm in DC for meetings this week, and I was fortunate enough to meet with Congressman Lewis in the Capitol building.  After an afternoon of often dry talk from Representatives and Senators of both parties, everyone was looking forward to meeting Lewis, and we were glad when he came in, as he's deserving of our respect for his personal story alone.  Once he started talking, it all changed.  I'd underestimated.

He began, in a preacher's booming baritone, by saying "I first came to Washington, DC, in 1963.  Had someone said at that time that I would have an office in this Capitol 40 years later, I would have said they were a fool."  Already, the room was enthralled; you could hear a pin drop.  No one was surreptitiously checking email on their phone, for the first time all day. 

He told us of his childhood.  A sharecropper's son in Alabama, he cared for the chickens, and before he was seven decided he wanted to be a preacher.  His father got him a bible, he learned to read it and, gathering his siblings, cousins and chickens, held 'church' in the front yard.  Soon enough, in school, he became personally familiar with racial discrimination and the results of segregation.  When he asked his parents why people could be this way, he was told it was "just the way it is," and to stay out of trouble.  After hearing of Rosa Parks and the bus boycott, he realized he could push back, and has been proudly in trouble for the last 45 years. 

At 15, he heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio, and his life changed.  He saw another way, and saw hope that change could come.  By the time he was 19, he had met with Dr. King and was already becoming a leader in the civil rights movement.

He told us of meeting, with Dr. King and others, with JFK in the White House in June, 1963.  How JFK urged them not to march on Washington, as it would cause violence and impede their ability to pass any civil rights bill.  They stressed that it would be a non-violent march, and that it was going to happen.  On July 2, they met in New York City with other civil rights and religious leaders to plan the march, and six weeks later, August 28, 1963, 250,000 American marched on the Mall for civil rights.  Congressman Lewis:

"There were 10 speakers.  Martin was tenth, I spoke sixth.  Of those ten speakers, I am the only one left."

Lewis This was, of course, the day of the "I have a dream" speech, which is memorialized by the words "I Have a Dream" engraved on the top step of the Lincoln Monument.  Over the course of his career as an activist, Congressman Lewis was arrested more than 40 times.  As you might imagine, few of these were pleasant or painless experiences, but he never altered his non-violent stance.

After his speech, we were invited to his office.  His aide showed us around an office filled with personal photos few can imagine.  Lewis with Dr. King.  Lewis with President Clinton.  Lewis on the steps of the Lincoln Monument, speaking.  We were shown a worn, framed cover of Time magazine, with Congressman Lewis leading 525 marchers across the Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday.  As we looked at the peaceful and orderly marchers, all so young and powerful in our eyes, the aide said "What peoSelmaple don't know is that just after this photo was taken, they were attacked by the police and beaten.  The Congressman doesn't remember much of the day, as he was unconscious". 

Allow that to sink in.  In truth, despite a fractured skull, Lewis appeared on television that afternoon calling on Lyndon Johnson to act.  He was then taken to the hospital, where his injuries were treated, and it isn't difficult to imagine the memories of such a day being somewhat dim.  Dr. King led future marches, of course, and on the third try the marchers did make it into Montgomery.  President Johnson, a week after bloody Sunday, called a joint sessionLewisselma of Congress and got them to work on the civil rights bill.  On August 6th of the same year, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, and John Lewis was presented with the pen used to sign the bill.

He's been in Congress since 1986, and continues to be an advocate for the cause of peace and equality.  As he left the room this afternoon, he told us almost in passing, "Persevere, my friends, don't give up." 

He also revisited his words at the beginning of his visit:  "If someone had told me in 1963 that I would have an office looking directly down on the Mall, where we made history at the Lincoln Monument, I would have told them they didn't know what they were talking about.  But today I have that office and that view."

I took a photo, because I now understand the story that a view that I love has to tell.  The view from Congressman John Lewis' office today:


Posted by switzerblog on September 26, 2007 at 11:07 PM in Miscellany | Permalink


Thank you. That's lovely.

Posted by: Lynn | Sep 26, 2007 11:18:46 PM

Thank you. That's lovely.

Posted by: Lynn | Sep 26, 2007 11:19:01 PM

Thank you. That's lovely.

Posted by: Lynn | Sep 26, 2007 11:19:39 PM

You are very fortunate, switzer, to have had this opportunity to interact with a man of such immense integrity and fortitude.

My memories of the March on Washington are hazy. I was nearly 13, and between the hormonal turmoil of adolescence and preparations for my bar mitzvah (October 12, 1963), my attention was diverted from the civil rights struggle. And, to be honest, in those days it was relatively easy to believe that the movement only really operated in the South ... that we in the suburbs of Philadelphia weren't really part of it, that it was only an issue in exotic and strange locales such as Alabama or Mississippi.

Of course, the tragic event just a few months later forever disabused us all from the notion that world affairs happened only elsewhere or to other people.

Posted by: Neal Traven | Sep 28, 2007 9:02:55 AM

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