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.