Interview with John Lewis


John Lewis:

Well, as I was growing up in rural Alabama, I saw all around me the system of segregation and racial discrimination. The visible signs in the little town of Troy—the population about 7,000—we saw the sign that said colored only, white only, colored waiting—water fountain. In a little 5 & 10 store was a civil fountain, a clean fountain, for white people to come and drink water, but in another corner of the store there was a little spigot, a rusty spigot [unintelligible] colored drinking. And I became resentful of the signs and all the visible evidence of segregation and racial discrimination. My father and my uncles and my grandfather and great grandfathers on my mother's side and my father's side, all of my relatives have—I listened to their discussions about what had happened to them, and so I grew up in that environment where I had to face and live with the system everyday. And I don't think I much of a choice but to, but resent it, and I grew up with a feeling that I had to find a way to oppose this system of segregation, racial discrimination. And my responsibility on the farm was to raise the chickens. We had a lot of chickens. And I grew up with this idea, somehow, I don't know where it came from, I wanted to be a minister and somehow I transferred my desire to be a minister and my responsibility of raising the chickens. Somehow it got together, and I literally started preaching to the chickens. They became members of this sort of invisible church, or maybe you want to call it a real church. And I tried out some ideas on the, on the chickens. Later I tested some ideas on my younger brothers or sisters and first cousins. And I remember my first act of maybe a nonviolent protest was when my parent would kill the chicken, that I would refuse to eat the chicken and it went for two or three days refusing to speak to my mother, father, because they killed a chicken. That I thought was so wrong and the one thing I did as a young child when I was about five or six years old, I wanted to save the soul of a chicken and baptize this particular chicken, and the chicken drown and in the process of trying to save this chicken, you know, I lost the chickens.


Reference tone now.


John Lewis:

I guess my sort of childhood way of dealing with protest and getting involved in later the civil rights movement—I was fifteen years old in the tenth grade in 1955 when I first heard of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Now Montgomery is only fifty miles from where I grew up and I heard about Martin Luther King because he came on a local radio station from Montgomery. He was preaching sermons like most black Baptist ministers, but I heard of this man, and the sermons: eloquent. But one sermon he had was very special, one Sunday morning at eleven o'clock on this radio station. It was something called Paul's message to the church at Corinth. But he took this sermon around and made it something like, Paul [sic] letter, or Paul's message to the Christians of America. And he kept preaching about—he was not concerned about the streets of heaven and the pearly gates and the streets paved with milk and honey—he was more concerned about the streets of Montgomery, and the way that black people and poor people were being treated in Montgomery. And this was before December, 1955 when the Montgomery Bus Boycott occurred. And I think listen to Martin Luther King, Jr. and listen to my grandmother and grandfather about some of the things that had happened to them, became messages, became the necessary ingredients to encourage me to identify with whatever movement or organization or cause that would rock the, the whole system of segregation and racial discrimination. We were bussed to school after I left the sixth grade. We road in old broken down buses that white children had used. We didn't have any new buses. And the roads, even the roads in the black community where black people owned land, were unpaved. They were left literally, deliberately unpaved, even skip places on, in the road. And during the winter months we would run in ditches on the way to school, because of the rain, the red mud, and the clay in that part of Alabama. And during evenings, returning from school, we would be late returning home because the bus would break down. We'd get stuck in the mud and that type of thing. So all of these things came together, and by the time I went away to college in 1957 and I was away from home—and the Montgomery Bus Boycott had occurred in Montgomery where we had witnessed and I saw it on television. I read about it in the newspaper. We didn't even have a subscription as a matter of fact, 'cause we were too poor I guess, to the local daily newspaper, something called the Montgomery Advertiser. But my grandfather had a subscription to that paper, and each day after he read the paper we would get the paper and we kept up with what was happening in Montgomery. And we listened to the radio, and, and what happened in Montgomery, to watch 50,000 black people walk the streets for over a year rather than ride segregated buses became a source of inspiration. It created a sense of hope, a sense of optimism. And by going to school in Nashville, Tennessee, many, many miles away from my parents and from rural Alabama I was—I felt freer to find a way, to, to get involved. And one of the first thing I did, I became a member of the youth chapter of the NAACP in Nashville. As a matter of fact, I tried to organize a campus chapter on the campus of the American Baptist Theological Seminary, where I was a student. We didn't succeed in that effort because this little school was gently supported by the Southern Baptist Convention, which was for the most part during that period, was all white, and the National Baptist Convention. And the president of the school said we couldn't organize a chapter there, but I continued to be involved in the, in the local chapter.