A Word on Words; 2640; John Lewis
A Word on Words, a program delving into the world of books and their authors. Your host, Mr. John Siegenthaler, chairman of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. Hello, I'm John Siegenthaler. Once again, welcome to a Word on Words and welcome John Lewis back to a Word on Words. I think it's John, I'm delighted to be here. Last week, we were talking about this great book, Walking with the Wind. That's a picture of John Lewis in another transformation, John. You have air there, still the same handsome young rogue that you are today. Well, I was much younger during those days, John, and I did have all of my hair. And I was a few pounds lighter. You were a few pounds lighter. But none the wiser for youth. We talked last week, John, about the courage, I said, the courage and commitment it took
to be a part of this movement. We talked about some of the beatings you took, some of the trips you made to jail and to prison in order to change a corrupt racist, segregated south. The example that served to the nation, we talked about, we left off at that night when Bull Connor sort of kidnapped the Freedom Rises from the Birmingham jail, took him back to the Tennessee line, dumped him. You went to the home of a frightened black man and woman. But that time, the Freedom Riders, their names were all over the news across the country. And these people were afraid of you, but they took you in and fed you. And then you called Diane Nash, and the question was whether Bull Connor would be able by taking
you from Birmingham back to the Tennessee line, get rid of you, kill the Freedom Rides. But once again, as you said last week, you could not let violence overcome nonviolence. So Diane Nash, who was running the operation out of, out of, from Fisk University in Nashville, sent one car for eight of you. The eight with the driver was eight with the driver, and we all got in the car with our luggage, with baggage, and we just squeezed in this little car. And we started down the road toward Birmingham, and some news report came on saying that the Freedom Riders were back in Nashville. And as we continue down this highway to Birmingham, and I said, Bulletin, please, UPI is not reporting that the Freedom Riders own that way back to Birmingham in a car, an old private automobile.
We sort of were concerned about that, because we didn't know what was happening. We got back to Birmingham, and we tried to board a bus. In the meantime, Diane had shipped 11 other people by train. And they were there. They were headed by Bernard Lafayette. Headed by Bernard Lafayette, a young student who had been involved in the City of Movement in Nashville, and they were there waiting for us. And we went and connected with them and Reverend Freire Shuttleworth, who was one of the leaders there in Birmingham. And I would never forget this. We tried to board a bus, and this bus driver made a classed statement. He said, I have one life to give, and I'm not going to give it to a poor of the NACP. And he refused to drive the bus. He refused. And each time they were called the name of City Bus, some Greyhound number, whatever, to Montgomery, we'd go out and try to board the bus, and no one would drive the bus. And it was during that time, a good friend, a turn in general, Robert Kennedy intervened and started negotiating with Greyhound.
And at one time, apparently, Robert Kennedy said, but don't you have some color bus drivers? And apparently Greyhound didn't have any black bus drivers in Birmingham, at least in the southeast. And then, Robert Kennedy became so desperate, I guess. He said, well, let me speak to Mr. Greyhound. And they didn't. Anyway, the turn in general made the arrangement, and he negotiated an agreement that we would leave Birmingham that sat at the morning. And we did leave, I believe, around 8.30 a.m., we boarded the bus, and there was supposed to be a plane flying over the bus, and a patrol call, it was so many miles. And most of the freedom riders, we were very tired, and we just took a little nap on the bus. And the moment we got to Montgomery about 10.30 a.m. maybe, we started down the stairs. But I tell you, Johnny, it was the eerie, strangest thing I ever seen, and I've been through that bus station many, many times. It was so quiet, it was so orderly, it was so peaceful. You didn't see anything.
It was not in the movement. And the moment we started down the stairs, this mob came out of nowhere, and it started beating members of the press. If you had a camera, a pencil and a pad, you were in real trouble. And they just started beating the freedom riders, after they beat members of the press. And I remember a young black woman from Tennessee State, only freedom ride in a cab, and with one or two other black women, and then apparently two or three other white women tried to get in the cab, but got in. And the black cab driver said he couldn't drive, because these young ladies were in there. And the Alabama law, blanks and white couldn't ride in the same taxi cab. And she told a black cab driver to get over and let her drive. She wanted to get the young women out of the way of the mob, and apparently the young women got out. And I know you were there. I was a one man gang to protect the freedom riders. I don't know what that turned into, but I'm thinking that you won one person, but going to protect us against a mob.
But you didn't know it was going to be a mob. I didn't know it was going to be a mob. You know, we have never really talked about that. We haven't talked about that. We really haven't. It was a, it was a hell of a day. It was a day that neither one of us probably could have talked about. It's a day that neither one of us can fully remember, because during at least part of that day, both of us were unconscious. We both are not cold. That's right. That's right, John. Well, I'll tell you, you got my name in the history books, you got my name in your book. Well, it's a strange way to get in there, but it's okay. I think we both are better for that day and for the role that we played, really. And I think our nation is better. John, you know, I've said a number of times that I knew what you all were about. I knew you were about non-violence.
But I never, I never thought about it for myself. And when the moment came, I mean, if I had seen what was about to happen to me, I would have responded in a violent way. I mean, I, I just had no chance to, to do that. But I, I've thought many, many times about those of you who knew what was coming and still were willing to suffer that. You tell at one point in the book about a moment, a crisis moment for you when you almost, when you almost responded in defense of someone who was about, who was suffering. You remember that moment in the book when you said there was an attack and you almost, you almost moved, almost reacted in a, in a physical way. Do you remember that moment?
Well, but my better self, but your better self to go. My better self prevail and I, and I think is that quite voice. I think is what I call the spirit of history, saying, no peace be still because I think if I had given in to violence, the opposition would have used that to justify almost anything. So non-violence was the right thing to do, but it was a practical thing. And we didn't have, we didn't have weapons, only thing we had with our bodies, we had to present our bodies as living witnesses to the truth, that's the only thing we had. And when I look back on that period, these young people in some instances, just young children, because someone was much younger than them, there was high school children that kept coming, kept coming, saying they wanted to be part of this effort. There was college kids who've been told, oh, and over again, like I was told by my mother
and fathers, don't get in trouble, don't go to jail, don't break the law. And we had to defy custom tradition, we had to revolt against the old God, like leadership from time to time. So it was not easy, but it was the right thing to do, to live by the principles and the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence. You know, John, if you read this book, you've made so much history. I say that. We talk about one moment in Montgomery, I mean, you faced that threat so many different times and so many different places. Beyond that, beyond the movement, not really beyond the movement, because you're, it was your involvement in the movement that put you into other places at other times, you were elected head of the student non-violent coordinate committee, you were its chair.
But then, no time. As the head of that organization, you find yourself in the Oval Office, with President Kennedy, with Martin Luther King, with Roy Wilkins, with a Philip Randolph. Talk about that session and that transition, because suddenly, you, from time to time, you had been a selected leader of a group. Now you were ahead of an organization, and there were new challenges and new responsibilities. Well, I remember that so well. I was elected chair of the student non-violent coordinate committee. One day and a week later, I was in the Oval Office, with President Kennedy, and self-other leaders of the movement.
I remember being there. I might, in respect of President Kennedy, his leadership, his candidacy for president in 1960 inspired me. And in this meeting, it took place after the sit-ins, the freedom rise, and after the campaign in Birmingham, half of the mega-everts had been shot in Kiel and Mississippi. A. Phil Randolph spoke up for the group. He was the oldest, the dean of black leadership. He said, in his baritone voice to the president, he said, Mr. President, the masses are restless. And we're going to march on Washington. And you can tell by the body language of President Kennedy, he didn't like what he heard. Oh, no, he didn't. President Kennedy said, Mr. Randolph, if you bring all these people to Washington, want to be violence and disorder, and you would never get us to rights bill through the Congress. And Mr. Randolph responded and said, Mr. President, does there be an orderly? This full, long, violent protest.
And I think President Kennedy sensed that Mr. Randolph was pretty serious about it. And President Kennedy said, well, I think we're going to have problems there. I have a problem and you have a problem. And the meeting continued on a very warm, friendly note. And we came out on a quite high line and we announced as a group that we had a very good meeting with President Kennedy. And we're contemplating some non-violent action in Washington, maybe more in Washington. And we left the White House and said we were going to New York and we were having a meeting of the six leaders there and we did go there in the first part of July in 1963. We met in New York and issued a call for the more in Washington. Roy Wilkins was not your favorite among that group, I take it. Well, Mr. Wilkins, I don't think ever really understood the non-violent wing of the movement of a mass movement.
I think he thought because his organization was the largest that he knew what was best. I remember him in that meeting literally coming in order to know the people out and people appear to be a friend of him. And so before Dr. King came in and he made a statement and said in the fact that he thought Martin King was political naive or something to that effect, he really didn't understand what was happening. But Dr. King had made it to the meeting, but Dr. King came in the meeting with Reverend Abinathan. So Wilkins went around the table, said, why are you here? So Reverend Abinathan had to leave. He only wanted a head of the organization there. Jane Foreman was there with me from the snake. We had to leave. There was somebody in there with Frinnon Young, I had to leave. Beat Rustin was there with A. Philoranda. So it's left the six of us just ahead of the organization. And it was during that meeting that we issued the call for the March on Washington and we got a labor leader, two or three church leaders, there were four major white religious and labor leaders that issued the call with us.
So we're ten of us that called the March on Washington. You know, John, you mentioned, and we didn't talk about it last week, but you mentioned there were some white leaders there. I think back over the story you tell here, and people like Paula Proud come to mind, people like Miles Horton come to mind, people like Will Campbell come to mind. And you write about their importance in the movement. But I'm struck by how often, when people like Roy Wilkins on one occasion, Will Campbell sought to take you in a direction you didn't want to go. You wouldn't go. There's that scene where Will is almost trying to put you down a little bit, saying to you, John, you know, you sure your ego hasn't really taken hold here. You should not march. You should not march. And your answer was?
Well, I said, we're going to march. You know, people doing those days accused me of having a stubborn street. My mother used to say, I had a hard head. It's not that. When I believed in something, I thought it was right. Dr. King used to say, the time is always right to do right. I thought it was right for us to march then. Will said to us, if you march on this Saturday in Nashville, they're going to allow people to beat you up, pull your off to lunch kind of stool. And in a rescue, they're going to torture you with this sort of like conduct. So that's okay. We couldn't stop. We had to go on. There were times when you challenged Dr. King, or when Dr. King challenged you, when you said, we're going to go our way. He understood that, I guess, even though there were times when he disagreed with just strategy. Well, Dr. King did disagree with us from time to time. But he understood, I think, that we were impatient with the tempo of change. We were young.
We had a sense of vigor and vitality, and we wanted to bring about change. We didn't want to wait. You know, I said at the march on Washington in that prepared speech, I said, we want our freedom. We want it now. We want us to wait. You tell us to be patient. We don't want our freedom gradually, but we want it here and we want it now. And some people said that was militant. That was radical. That was nothing radical of militant in that speech. It was a play on words, a lot of rhetoric. But when I look back on it today, it's so mild and so tame. You know, I said last week that there are some really light moments in the book. Would you tell me what it's like to dance with Shirley McLean? Well, it was a lot of fun to dance with Shirley McLean. Now Shirley McLean suggested that I was, she said that was something in my eyes. And she talked about my role at Polly, Fanny or something like that.
She didn't need it. But she came south and she wanted to understand the movement. She wanted to identify with it. And she was a strong supporter of I effort. You know, from time to time, you get out of jail and you have an opportunity to socialize, to sort of pull off your tie and get out of your jacket and have some fun. We did it from time to time in the movement. We did become a sucker of trust, a band of brothers and sisters. And so it didn't matter whether you were white or black. We became like a family. And at one time, I used to think, John, that the only real integration that existed in America was within the movement itself. There was so many wonderful, beautiful, sensitive, caring and compassionate people that came out of that period.
There are conflicts within conflicts in the book. There comes a time when your chairmanship is challenged by Stokely Carmichael. You call it the de-election. You're elected early in the evening. Your friends leave, go to bed. You're going to serve another term. There's a romp session and Stokely is elected. I don't know if I could have taken that. Well, I didn't have much of a choice. Well, you know, you could have walked away from, you could have walked away from Snick. You could have said to hell with it. They cheated. I'm not going to be part of this. But you stayed on. You stayed on and took it with grace. You later went on to other things, but Snick changed when Lewis went out and Carmichael came in. And there was a sense that there was no longer a commitment to non-violence inside the leadership of Snick.
Well, that evening, I saw the death of the student non-violent coordinating committee because Snick laws its sense of being involved in the feeling of an interracial community or the beloved community. We started talking about black nationalism, black power, and it was this whole urge to get white, participant, out of the organization. And many of our white friends and colleagues, people who had suffered with us, had been there with us. And some almost had died with us. And there was not in keeping with the principles of non-violence, not in keeping with what Snick meant. And later on, a Snick dropped non-violence and became the National Coordinating Committee, dropped students, dropped non-violence. And I do think that led to the death in the end of the organization.
I always knew it. That's one conflict that's a wonderful story in the book and you tell it with such feeling. The other conflict involved your friend, Julian Bond, the race for Congress, which brings you where you are today, Julian was really sort of ordained with a golden crown. He was heavy favorite to beat you in that election. And it was a tough election. He was election in which two friends going in were not two friends coming out. That's fair I think. I think that's very fair. It was very tough election. It was an election. It was a campaign I never ever want to go through again. It tried and tested the hearts and souls and wheels of a lot of people.
I remember very well my conversation with Julian before I announced for Congress, before he announced for Congress. I asked him one day at a meeting, I said, what are you going to do? He said I'm running for Congress. He called me chairman. Mr. Chairman, because I've been a chair of snake, he asked me what I was going to do. We were having a lunch together. I said, I'm running for Congress and it was the shortest lunch. And he said, I see you on the campaign trail. I said, I see you on the campaign trail. And we got out there and we started running. And everybody thought Julian was going to win. We got out there and we ran and we worked and worked very, very hard. In the final analysis, I think I just outworked him. But he committed a great mistake. He violated politics 101. He got 47% of the vote in the first race. I received only 35. He challenged me to debate him. He put me on equal footing.
And I debated him at least four, maybe five times, radio, TV, four type of audiences. And I kept saying send to Washington, a work horse, not a show horse. Send to Washington, a tugboat, not a showboat. And I just got out there and I worked and worked. And I went up 17 points in three weeks. He went at one point. You know, John, I think about your life and the book, the threat of consistency that runs throughout your whole life. What you just said about the beloved community carried through even to the American march on Washington. And you decided you would not participate in that because it sort of in a different way it was an extension of the black nationalist spirit that had come to take over. Snake.
But you know, it's a story of hope, but it's also a story of great tragedies. And you were so close to Dr. King and we lost him. You worked so hard for Bobby Kennedy and we lost him. There is that recurrence of meetings with Dr. King, each one in its own way, a moment of history. There were those sessions with Robert Kennedy. When you talk about his evolution as a human being, his intellectual growth, how he came to understand and how he told you that he understood. I guess I'd like, because you were responsible for it, to hear you tell in the few moments we have left of that moment in the ghetto in Indiana on the night of Dr. King's death. Robert Kennedy is scheduled to make a speech.
And many of his advisors are telling him, don't go down there. Don't go into that ghetto. I mean, they're just going to be troubled, the cities are already blowing up. But you said come. You know, I felt that it was a must for Robert Kennedy to come and speak to that crowd. Most of these people can't even heard that Dr. King had been shot. We had heard some of us. I heard that they had been shot, but I didn't know Lee was dead. I didn't know his condition. And I felt it was important for Robert Kennedy to come and speak. And I was one that insisted that Robert Kennedy had to come and Robert Kennedy did come. And he didn't speak. And I tell you, from that little impromptu speech that Robert Kennedy made at evening in an office, he spoke from his heart. He spoke from his soul. He announced to the crowd that Dr. King had been assassinated. And that was my first, that's how I heard it.
I heard it from Robert Kennedy that Dr. King was dead. We all cried a little. And it was very sad. It was very dark moment for me. I loved and respected Dr. King. He was my friend. He was my hero. He was my leader. But I sort of picked myself up after the funeral, John, and said, I'm going to work hard and I didn't ever before for Robert Kennedy. And I said, we still have Robert Kennedy. So I went on out to Oregon and then on out to California. And I would never forget to demoticate through Los Angeles. Hundreds and thousands of people just out there pulling for Robert Kennedy. And in the night of the victories there, I was in his room, his suite on the fifth floor, the ambassador hotel, spoke to him a few minutes before he went down to make his victory statement. And he sort of joked with me and said, John, you let me down the day, more Mexican-American turned out to vote in Negroes.
And he sort of suggested he'd be back.
- A Word on Words
- Episode Number
- John Lewis
- Producing Organization
- Nashville Public Television
- Contributing Organization
- Nashville Public Television (Nashville, Tennessee)
- AAPB ID
Producing Organization: Nashville Public Television
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
Nashville Public Television
Identifier: A0527 (Nashville Public Television)
Nashville Public Television
Identifier: cpb-aacip-524-7p8tb0zq5k.mp4 (mediainfo)
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- Chicago: “A Word on Words; 2640; John Lewis,” 1998-07-02, Nashville Public Television, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 28, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-524-7p8tb0zq5k.
- MLA: “A Word on Words; 2640; John Lewis.” 1998-07-02. Nashville Public Television, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. September 28, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-524-7p8tb0zq5k>.
- APA: A Word on Words; 2640; John Lewis. Boston, MA: Nashville Public Television, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-524-7p8tb0zq5k