Eyes on the Prize One Interviews
Washington University Digital Gateway Texts
Interview with John Lewis

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Interviewer: James A. DeVinney
Production Team: A
Interview Date: December 5, 1988

Camera Rolls: 1049-1050
Sound Rolls: 120

Editorial Notes:

Interview with , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 5, 1988, for . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection. These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of



JAMES A. DeVINNEY: OK, Congressman, if you can tell me the first time you met Malcolm X. Describe that for me.
JOHN LEWIS: I first met Malcolm, on the eve of the march on Washington. It would have been, August 27th, ah, 1963, at the Statler Hilton Hotel in downtown Washington D.C. Ah, Malcolm had real respect and admiration, for the young people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I think he was wishing that the people in SNCC, ah, and me in particular, because he knew that I had to speak the next day, wishing me well.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Why do you think he had respect and admiration for SNCC.
JOHN LEWIS: Malcolm saw SNCC young people, the young Black and White students, ah, not just from the North but those young and Black students working in the South, as being, ah, something like guerrilla warriors. They were out there on the cutting edge. Ah, and he kept saying, in a sense, that we're here we, we, we will be there and be supportive. He kept saying, if they don't listen to you, then they will have to deal with us.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Well I know that you were very active in the South, and of course, you were a Southerner. You'd been in Freedom Rides, you'd been at lunch counters, ah, had the beloved community and the whole SNCC philosophy of nonviolence. As a Southerner with that kind of background, what did Malcolm X mean or represent to you.
JOHN LEWIS: Malcolm X represented, ah, a different brand of leadership. Many of us that grew up in the South, had been deeply influenced by the Church, by the preaching of Black ministers, but also by the message, the philosophy, the teaching of Martin Luther King, Jr. The philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. Ah, we saw Malcolm as someone in a sense, from the outside, ah, coming from the North, ah, to tell us that there was a different way, a different approach. And I think many of us in the South, had some reservations about it[1] Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 - 1985; Episode 201-09, because we kept preaching the idea of interracial democracy, the beloved community, an open society.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: And you didn't think Malcolm represented that?
JOHN LEWIS: We saw Malcolm as being somewhat, ah, ah, paradoxical to our own philosophy, to our own methods of operating, ah, in the South. But we were willing to, to listen to Malcolm, because on one hand, ah, Malcolm, ah, inspired us. Malcolm probably in one way said things in New York, in particular, in Chicago, but around the country, ah, that maybe some people in the South, or in other parts of the country, didn't have the courage to say.
JAMES A. DeVINNEY: I'd like to stop down Bobby--


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: OK tell us what you saw in Africa that affected you.
JOHN LEWIS: I saw Africa, ah, as a place of independence, a place of freedom, a place where, particularly in West Africa, and East Africa, where we visit as members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. For the first time, you saw a group of Black men and women in charge, ah, growing up in the southern parts of the United States of America, where we have been talkin', and speaking a great deal about one man, one vote. Ah, in Guinea, in Ghana, in East Africa, in Zambia, we saw people making it real, making it happen. It was a source of inspiration, for us to be in a, in a country, on a continent, where there was a greater sense of freedom, and a greater sense of ah, an appreciation for human dignity.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Now I know that you very often were visiting places right after Malcolm had been passing through, and a lot of people talked to you about Malcolm, can you describe what that was like?
JOHN LEWIS: In all of our stops, ah, throughout Africa, particularly in places like Ghana, in Addis Ababa, in Nairobi, ah, in Zambia, any place we went, when we came in contact with local people, ah, officials of the government. But organizations and individuals that was in exile from Mozambique, from Angola, ah, from South Africa. Ah, they were say- were asked, "What is your relationship with Malcolm?" In a sense to, to make our own position, ah, a little more respectable, to give us a sense of credibility we had to say, "We know Malcolm, we met Malcolm," that we had appreciation and respect for Malcolm.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: What do they seem to think of Malcolm?
JOHN LEWIS: Malcolm X for many Africans was a real hero. Ah, many African leaders and individuals, particularly people involved in liberation struggles, ah, saw him as a fighter. Ah, saw him as someone that was trying to cement and build stronger ties, between people of color in America, and people in Africa.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: OK, I want you to describe your meeting with Malcolm, and what came out, what was the point of all that, or what did you get out of that meeting?
JOHN LEWIS: We met Malcolm at the New Stanley, ah, Hotel in Nairobi, and it was by chance that we met. It was one of the most, ah, moving meetings that I ever had, ah, with Malcolm. Ah, and probably was the longest meeting, for more than two days, it was there in New Stanley, ah, we discussed not just the problems and the issues in Africa. But we spent a great deal time, ah, speaking about the problems in America. Ah, the problem of the denial of the right to vote, this is right after the Democratic convention in 1964. So the whole question of the right to participate in a Democratic process, was on the mind of Malcolm, as it was on the mind of my colleagues in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. And he kept warning us and telling us to be careful. Ah, I remember on one occasion, during a meeting in a little coffee shop at the hotel there in Nairobi, ah, he would say, ah, "Always sit with your back to the wall so you can look out and see who is watching you." He told us to be careful, but I had a feeling from my discussions in meeting with him, that Malcolm was in the process of, of becoming a changed person, a changed man, because he kept saying over and over again, that he really wanted to be helpful and be supportive of the Civil Rights Movement. And he wanted to visit the South.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Did he give any kind of a charge to SNCC?
JOHN LEWIS: He told us over and over again, ah, during our conversations to keep fighting, don't give up. Ah. He said, "You know this is an ongoing struggle, ah, be prepared for the worst, but keep it up, keep fighting. People are changing, there are people supporting you all over the world."


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: And only a few months later, of course, he was assassinated. You attended that as a representative of SNCC, why did SNCC think they should attend Malcolm's funeral.
JOHN LEWIS: Both of us in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, ah, that represented people in the front line in the South. I think they felt very strongly that we had to be present, that we had to show ah, a sense of solidarity, with the philosophy, with the views, with the followers of Malcolm. Ah, many of the young people in SNCC, was greatly moved and inspired by this man. Ah. People throughout the South wanted somehow and some way to see Malcolm emerge as a leader. They, they would have felt that his greatness, his true greatness was yet to come. And that was a feeling I think on the part of us, that Malcolm was moving towards that point of creating an interracial democracy. Ah, that he was moving away from the idea and the philosophy of a separate society, a separate community. And we felt that we had to be there, there was no other place to be, but to be there, to bear witness to the life and times of Malcolm. JAMES A. DeVINNEY


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: I wonder if you could just tell us something that you saw or something that you felt while you were attending that funeral. If you could kind of give us a little picture of what it was like to be at that funeral.
JOHN LEWIS: During the funeral of Malcolm, I recall seeing people there from all walks of life. Blacks, people that was pretty well off, but common people--Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, I believe James Farmer of CORE was there. And it was other individuals, nameless individuals that had participated, ah, in the struggle in the movement. It was a great shock to many of us, so it was a very sad, ah, occasion really, in, um, 1965, ah, because for many of us, Malcolm had made an attempt to see us in, ah, Selma, Alabama. He came to Selma, ah, in February, early part of February 1965, and, ah, many of us including Dr. King were in the jail at the time. And the local officials denied him the right to see us, so the last time for me personally, seeing Malcolm alive, was in Africa in 1964.
JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Let's stop there.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: OK, if you could just give us a very personal recollection of Malcolm and his death and what you were doing and how it affected you then, that would be wonderful.
JOHN LEWIS: Well, I will never forget, the, ah, the death of Malcolm. Ah, I, heard about his death when we were driving from a small town in South Georgia, Americus, Georgia by way of Atlanta to Selma, Alabama. And the way I remembered the date so well it was February 21st, 1965, ah, my birthday, ah, I was 25. And I tell you, I really felt at that time, that some of the possibilities, ah, died, some of the hope, ah, some of the coming together, the building between the sort of Malcolm wing of the movement if you want to call it that and the Martin Luther King wing of the movement died. Because in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, in the Southern wing, those young Black men and women were deeply influenced by the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. They believed in it, they believed in the possibility of building an interracial democracy. On the other hand you had Black students and White students, but primarily Black students from the North that was deeply influenced and affected by Malcolm. And then sometime at SNCC meetings, informal meetings, people would get in these, ah, creative arguments about, "Well according to Malcolm--" "According to Martin Luther King--" "Malcolm says such and such a thing." And people would play his speeches, they would read his writings. And, if Malcolm had lived I think you would have witnessed a greater marriage between the, ah, Martin Luther King wing of the movement and the Malcolm wing of the movement.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: I'm a little surprised, many people thought Malcolm was disruptive to the movement. You talk about almost a healing quality of about Malcolm, can you talk about that just a moment?
JOHN LEWIS: Malcolm, in my estimation after the man returned from Mecca, after he made that trip to Selma, Alabama and spoke to the students at Browns Chapel, AME Church, a group of high school students, ah, this man was on his way toward building, towards reconciling the differences between people. Ah. I think he laid down, was in the process of laying down the burden of race and color.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Lets stop there. JAMES a. DeVINNEY By the summer of 1965, within SNCC there seemed to be some major questions being raised about relations between Blacks and Whites in the organization. I wonder if you can kind of talk to why there were such questions, and what your position was in the midst of all that.
JOHN LEWIS: In the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, ah, the summer of 1965, ah, coming on the heel of the assassination of Malcolm, after the Democratic convention, after many people had returned from Africa, I think there was a growing sense of ah, Black awareness, it was a sense that the organization, not just SNCC, but the Civil Rights Movement, had to take on a different role. Ah, I continued as the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, to preach the possibility of creating a truly interracial democracy. Ah, in SNCC during those days, I think many of us believed in the idea of a circle of trust and, and a band of brothers. I think some of us felt at the time that the only real and true integration that existed in the American society was within the Civil Rights Movement itself. Ah, however, and in spite of the feeling that people, Blacks and Whites, struggling together, going to jail together, in, in many instances being beaten together, and, and some of our colleagues dying together, there was a sense, this feeling, that somehow and someway this movement must be more Black dominated and Black led.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Well there did seem to be some divisions of thought there, that, and some differences that developed within SNCC, that may have lost the chairmanship of SNCC, for you to Stokely Carmichael. And I know I may be hitting on something that's a little sensitive to you, but I wonder if you kind of talk to me, why you think you lost to Stokely in that election.
JOHN LEWIS: Well in 1965, ah, Stokely Carmichael, along with 2 or 3 other people did mention the possibility of challenging me for the chairmanship of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Ah, I was reelected in 1965, and continued to serve until the spring of 1966. I think it was feeling in, in SNCC, on the part of some of the people, like, ah, Stokely and others, ah, that they needed someone who would, ah, maybe not be so non-violent, someone who would be, ah, "Blacker", in a sense. That would not preach interracial efforts, ah, preach integration. Ah, I remember very well, in the spring of 1966, I had been invited to go on a trip, to speak to Scandinavian students, to Sweden, Norway, and Denmark about the Civil Rights Movement, about the effort to end the war in Vietnam. And, ah, when I came back, It was almost like a coup, ah, people were saying that we need someone who will stand up to Lyndon Johnson, we need someone who will stand up to Martin Luther King, Jr.[2] Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 - 1985; Episode 201-26 And it was at that time that the real battle for the chairmanship of SNCC took place, and it was May 1966. Ah, I made a decision that it didn't matter what happened, I would, when I would continue to advocate the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. Ah, that I, that I believed in the interracial democracy, that I believed in Black and White people working together.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: John, you were beat over the head I don't know how many times, jailed I don't know how many times, and then you lose out on the chairman of SNCC, this must have come as a kind of personal loss, for you.
JOHN LEWIS: Well, it was very disappointing, you know after going to jail, ah, 40 times, being beaten on the Freedom Ride in '61, and almost facing death, during the march--the attempted march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, ah, to be challenged and unseated, to be reelected and de elected the same evening as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was a personal disappointment, it was a personal loss. But at the same time, ah, I said to myself, and to those supporters that supported me, ah, primarily southern students, "A great many of my White colleagues in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had to struggle with an ongoing struggle. And I was going to continue to advocate the philosophy, the discipline of nonviolence, and the sense of community, that all of us Blacks and Whites were in this boat together."


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Stokely, of course in speaking Black Power on that march, on the Meredith March, how did you feel about that?
JOHN LEWIS: Well, I never, during the Meredith March, ah, that was the turning point for me. I continued to be a part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Ah, but the preaching, the chanting of slogans, ah, was never something that, ah, was easy for me to become part of. Because I felt during the Meredith March, ah, some of those in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, used the March to get the message, ah, get the words, to get the slogan of Black power across. It was empty rhetoric, it was not a message, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had a rich history of being involved in programmatic efforts and not just the use of slogans. It was at that point during that march, ah, that I made a decision to leave the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee[3] Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 - 1985; Episode 201-32.


JOHN LEWIS: We saw our struggle in Americus, Georgia, in Selma, Alabama, in Birmingham, Alabama, being inseparable from the struggle in Angola, in Mozambique. It was a worldwide struggle, ah, people of color, people that had been hurting and suffering and left behind, ah, needed help. And we felt that we had to be identified as part of the world wide struggle.


JAMES A. DeVINNEY: Relate that to the position on Vietnam.
JOHN LEWIS: So, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, felt very strongly that we had a moral obligation, really, to take a position against the war in Vietnam. We saw people of color, poor people, struggling for self-determination, that we didn't have a right, ah, to go thousands and thousands of miles away or to send other people to bomb, to kill, to destroy, and we took a strong position against the war in Vietnam and encouraged the young men in SNCC not to support the draft.
JAMES A. DeVINNEY: All right, stop-down. Thank you very much congressman. That's all.