By Anna Daniels
Editor Note: Congressman John Lewis told Chuck Todd in a recent interview that he did not see Trump as a legitimate president and that he would not attend the inauguration. Congressman Lewis brings the voice of moral authority and courage to his decision. The following is an article from the SDFP archives published on March 2, 2014.
On Saturday March 1, Congressman John Lewis received the National Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC) Peacemaker award for his outstanding work as a civil rights champion and inspiring congressional leader. The reception, dinner and award ceremony were held at the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines. I did not attend, but there is no doubt in my mind that the guests were moved by his powerful oratory as he embraced another opportunity at that event to promote non-violent action as the only democratic remedy and response to injustice in the world.
Earlier in the day, Congressman John Lewis entered the Oak Park Public Library and became Storyteller John Lewis. In the intimacy of this small library, Lewis was clearly in his element. The Oak Park Library has no meeting room. Over eighty people sat and stood in the heart of this library surrounded by computers and book stacks. We sang This Little Light of Mine, lead by Lisa Sanders followed by a brief, heartfelt introduction from 4th district Councilwoman Myrtle Cole, the first African American woman on the city council.
In this place, Congressman Lewis unhurriedly and deftly wove the personal details of his own life, about how he grew up in rural Alabama on a farm in the segregationist south. We were immediately drawn into the storyteller’s enchanted circle.
The path of non-violence began with preaching to the chickens Lewis began by relating:
“In 1944, I was four years and I can remember being four. Can you remember being four? ” Heads nodded. “My job was feeding the chickens. What do you know about chickens?” There was laughter. Lewis of course knew that his audience resided in the urban core of a large city.
By the age of nine or ten Lewis knew that he wanted to be a preacher. And preachers need a congregation. Lewis had family, friends—and chickens. He would gather them all together in the yard and preach. Looking out at the library crowd with the faintest smile curling the corners of his mouth, he opined that he often had better results preaching just to the chickens.
This quickly sketched anecdote provided a glimpse into Lewis’ early grasp of the power of words and ideas which would later become essential tools of defense against fire bombs, beatings, dogs and hoses as well as essential tools of offense, inspiring others to find courage, camaraderie and faith in continuing the civil rights struggle.
Finding a way to get in the way Lewis grew up in a world of segregated waiting rooms, lunch counters, bathrooms, hotels and schools. Silence fell in the room when he described going to the Troy Public Library in the closest town and requesting a library card. His request was denied. It was a whites only library.
Lewis paused for a moment. The stacks behind him labelled “Cambodian Books” and “Vietnamese Books” came clearly into focus. And in that moment the congratulatory impulse to say “How far we have come!” was dispelled by a deeper question–“How did the most democratic of institutions, our public libraries, become subverted from their purpose?”
In 1957, Lewis applied to Troy State College and was denied entrance on the basis of his race. He wrote a letter to Martin Luther King, asking for help. Dr. King did help. Lewis received the incredible sum of $100 to purchase a bus ticket and subsequently found himself in a room with King and Fred Gray, the lawyer for the Freedom Riders.
Lewis was seventeen years old and would now learn the power of human bodies gathered together in non-violent resistance. Finding a way to get in the way was reduced to its most elemental components– a physical presence and an unshakable moral grounding.
We can all create a beloved community Lewis had accepted non-violence as a way of life, but that acceptance came in the midst of violent, bloody confrontations. As he described a particularly violent 1961 lunchroom event in Rockhill South Carolina, a man jumped up in the front of the room and exclaimed “I’m from Rockhill! I know what you’re saying!”
Lewis stopped speaking and walked over to the man, shook his hand and spoke quietly to him for a few seconds. Lewis had not viewed this as a disruption; it was instead a meaningful point of connection.
The crowd in the library was a diverse one. There were African Americans, Latinos, whites and Asians. The sentiment “I know what you’re saying” was palpable among the older African American attendees. When Lewis said “We didn’t give up, didn’t become bitter, didn’t become hostile” he affirmed the individual experiences and commitment of his beloved community.
Those words were also directed to the young people in the room, affirming a way forward. He clearly saw in their upturned faces the future of the beloved community. “Be careful. Be particular.” This was his mother’s advice to him when he was growing up. Now he was passing that advice on to the children in the room. Be careful. Be particular. And find a way to get in the way.
The congressman’s staffers were pointing to their watches. Lewis answered a few questions. When an Oak Park elementary school student asked him why he was so awesome he responded “I feel so lucky.” He spoke about his great good luck of meeting Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy, even though his “luck” also included going to jail forty times.
He walked over to the child, dropped to his knee so that they would both be on the same level as he continued to speak. That act spoke volumes about John Robert Lewis’ ability to wordlessly convey respect to his audience and to engage with everyone in the room. He stood back up and seemed loathe to leave the library, his beloved community.
The Friends of the Oak Park Library selected Lewis’ book March as their first One Book reading this year. This graphic novel, in which Lewis shares his memories of the Civil Rights Movement is the first part of a trilogy.
Post Script: In 1998, Lewis returned for the first time since his youth to the Troy Public Library. He was issued a library card.
I was also able to attend this event and it really was apparent how much Congressman Lewis enjoyed the art of storytelling. He demonstrated the nature of a good storyteller who not only presents an engaging narrative but also engages the audience, asks questions, incorporates the responses in his delivery and draws us all into his world. And what great fortune that his world is one of such care and love and passion to create a community that is inclusive and compassionate. It was a truly inspirational event.
Jim Bliesner says
Well said! Thanks for sharing.
Michael Heinzman says
My wife and I were at the event and you really nailed the whole context of the event. You should be writing for the UT, they could use a good reporter or two. It was an inspiring event and one we will never forget. The room with all those people was more quiet then even a library, as everyone hung on each word. Could we have your email address so we can include you for any of our events at Oak Park library?
Anna Daniels says
Thank you Michael. I’ve sent you an email. Anna
Mike Watson says
How fortunate we were to have this great man
take time from his busy schedule to come to our
Thanks to Claudia.
gloria walton says
I was not able to attend John Lewis’ visit to Oak Park but after reading the attached article by Anna Daniels and viewing the pictures I feel that I was there. Thanks so much to all for planning this wonderful community event. I hope many young people were there to hear Mr. Lewis. They need to know how it was.
Maria Davis says
Thank you for such a wonderful column. I was there and it was just inspiring to know that people like Congressman John Lewis who have integrity still are among us.
Thank you Claudia for the spark to that got the machine started :)
Beautifully written! I felt like I was there. Thanks for letting us, the readers, participate in this inspiring event as well. :-)
Anna Daniels says
Readers should know that the “Claudia” referred to in the comments is Claudia Thompson, of the Oak Park Friends. She deserves the kudos. I had the opportunity to speak to her and asked what “finding a way to get in the way” means here in San Diego.
She responded- to find the intersection of housing, employment and education.
That is a response worth thinking about.
Carol Widdop-Sonka says
Anna, you caught so perfectly the awe John Lewis inspired, how he connected heart to heart, made us see how it is possible to make significant social changes without harming others. I was astonished at the way he focused attention and compassion on those individuals who had seen some of what he saw, and then he spread that gentleness and earnest mission out into the room. Most of all, thank you for making certain we heard him urge us to find ways to continue to do what needs to be done. What a great write-up about a living, working hero!
Claudia Thompson says
I want to thank you for a beautifully written article. You gave us all a very special gift by capturing the essence of the day. Thank you so much for being there and “recording” and reporting the event.
Congressman John Lewis is just amazing. What a memorable day!
I am so grateful. Again, thank you.
Novanna E. Hunt says
Yes, Ann you beautifully and skillfully documented an unforgettable event. I was honored to have been a witness to the planning and preparation that went into the event.
It has been my privilege to witness how dedicated my sister Claudia is to her work with the Oak Park Friends of the Library and the Oak Park Library staff as they do their part in creating the “beloved community.”
In catching up on the SDFP, I’m so glad I read your wonderful article, Anna, about this wonderful man’s appearance. I agree with all the comments already stated and esp. the one with wishing you wrote for the U/T. You have a wonderful knack for writing whatever you write about.
Anna Daniels says
Thanks to you all for the kind words. I attended the event as a citizen journalist, which is what we practice and encourage here at SDFP. That means that while I took extensive notes that would form the basis of my article, I was also a participant. I sang with you and I was emotionally as well as intellectually engaged. Here at SDFP we think this dual participation/observation produces a different kind of journalism and it is a meaningful kind of journalism.
I hope each one of you considers expanding your voice from commenter to citizen journalist. SDFP would like to hear more from you and to hear more about your communities. Anna
anne haule says
Thank you Anna for this moving story about a man who is a true hero. I admire his willingness to say Trump’s election was not legitimate. Your account is such that I feel I was there at the library with him.
Susan L Taylor says
Oh Anna, what a tribute these years later! I have watched Congressman Lewis several times this week, including this morning on Meet the Press. I am so moved by his resolve, passion and ability to connect to others. His consistent speech to power in inspiring to me in ways I cannot explain. I am grateful for the reprint of this article.
maria e. Garcia says
I shared this article on FB because it is so beautifully written and because I want young people to know this great man.
Be careful, be particular, find a wave to get in the wave…as we say in SD, …
Thanks for this message, congressman Lewis and Anna Daniels,