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An Inspiration to the Cause of Freedom

by Michael S. Bornstein

Summer 1999, Vol. 62, No. 2

Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, by John Lewis with Michael D'Orso, 1998. Simmon & Schuster, New York, 470 pp., $26

For those of us with some memory of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, John Lewis is more than the representative from Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District. He is a true American hero. Walking with the Wind is his tale, as well as a story of the movement.

Born in 1940 to a family of ten children, Lewis grew up dirt poor on a small Alabama farm, where he and his brothers and sisters helped his parents grow cotton to earn a few dollars a day. The Lewises owned a three-room house with no electricity and no running water. To get to the kitchen, they had to go outside and walk around to the back. As a child, John attended segregated schools and saw few examples of blacks who had succeeded in American society.

In 1955, Lewis listened to a radio broadcast from Montgomery that changed his life. He heard a young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching that the church needed to do more for its poor than just prepare them for a life in the hereafter. Inspired by Dr. King’s oratory and example, Lewis began to feel that there might be hope for his people in this life and in this society.

After high school, when Lewis went to Nashville, Tennessee to train in the ministry at a small seminary, he met James Lawson, a charismatic organizer who instructed hundreds of people in the principles of non-violent protest. Lewis also made the acquaintance of other future civil rights luminaries, including James Bevel, Diane Nash and Bernard LaFayette.

Lewis and his colleagues began the slow process of organizing a sit-in movement to integrate lunch counters throughout Nashville. They also organized the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that spearheaded the sit-in campaign, and later developed the black voter registration movement throughout the South.

Once the lunch counters were integrated as a result of the success of the sit-in campaigns, Lewis and his colleagues moved on to desegregate department stores and other businesses. The SNCC organizers then began to coordinate their efforts with Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). The resulting joint efforts led to non-violent protests throughout the South.

What was non-violent on the part of the protesters was not necessarily non-violent on the part of those they confronted. As most will recall, this turbulent period saw authorities arresting thousands of Americans for exercising the right of peaceful assembly. Lewis himself was jailed forty times, and was sometimes beaten as well. He chronicles his personal involvement in those events in this inspiring and moving book.

Unbeknownst to much of the public, many major American leaders approached the issue of civil rights for African-Americans with great reluctance; Lewis is not the first to document this. Taylor Branch, a historian and prize-winning author of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, made the same point. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson were all dragged into the civil rights struggle against their will, for none was an ardent advocate of desegregation. For one thing, the national democratic leadership was fearful of losing the support of southern democrats, whose racism and opposition to integration were deeply rooted.

As an example of this point, the Kennedys were told in advance of the plans of John Lewis and others, who intended to ride Greyhound and Trailways buses from Virginia to Alabama in order to desegregate bus terminals along the way--the famous Freedom Rides. Even so, one bus was attacked and bombed by racists, and passengers were killed and injured, all while federal authorities stood by and watched. At one bus terminal, another crowd of racists attacked and maimed protesters, some of whom were left paralyzed for life, and again, all while federal authorities stood on the sidelines.

It was only when the violence spurred intense, public and uncomfortable pressure on government officials that Robert and John Kennedy took an interest in civil rights: the Birmingham church bombing that left four young children dead, the dozens of schoolchildren who were attacked by Bull Connor’s dogs and fire hoses, the increasing involvement and risk by affluent white college students from the North. And then came the massive March on Washington in 1963.

John Lewis was one of the major leaders associated with this historic event. Along with Dr. King, Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins, A. Phillip Randolph, Whitney Young and James Farmer, Lewis went to Washington to push Congress into passing legislation to ensure jobs and freedom for American blacks. Prodded by hundreds of thousands of peaceful Americans--blacks and whites--marching in the streets of our nation’s capital, Congress finally passed some legislation.

In 1964, the ambush and murder of three college students--two whites from the North and one black from the South--on an isolated country road was detailed to the nation on the front page of the New York Times. More than any of the other events up to that time, this horrifying story brought the distant turmoil in the South to every home in America. It made the Kennedys and others on the national scene uncomfortable enough to become seriously concerned about civil rights.

After the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Lewis focused a great deal of energy on getting southern blacks registered to vote. Many small towns persisted in making it difficult for blacks to register, despite the laws. John Lewis was there, though, and as a result of his efforts and those of others who worked with him, millions of new voters were added to the roles.

Lewis was a prominent supporter of Robert Kennedy’s bid for the 1968 democratic nomination. His role was to help deliver African-American votes. By that time, he was very comfortable supporting Kennedy because he believed Kennedy had grown as a human being since the early 1960s. He was with the Kennedy campaign in California the night the senator was killed and was devastated by the loss.

In one of the book’s most moving sections, Lewis draws a painful picture of 1968 as a year of such tragedy for our country: the death of Robert Kennedy, the increasing racial tension and unrest throughout the country, America’s sacrifice of its youth in Vietnam and, of course, the growing protests against that war. All of this set the backdrop for his heart-wrenching depiction of the events leading up to Dr. King’s assassination.

The book deals in great detail with the internal affairs of SNCC, from its genesis to Lewis’s chairmanship and finally to his ouster by Stokely Carmichael. SNCC’s transition from a non-violent, racially integrated group into an essentially racist, violent organization is described with abundant attention to every detail, perhaps too much so. The parallels of this same transformation in American society at the time are not lost on the author, however.

Politics as a means of effecting change grew more and more appealing to Lewis after he relocated to Atlanta. He married a school teacher. He socialized with Julian Bond, an old SNCC friend, as well as Andrew Young. He was elected a councilman and served for a time before he set his sights on Congress.

He lost his first Congressional race. His second race pitted him in a tight primary contest against his old friend Bond. The book depicts Bond as glamorous, well-to-do and well-connected, but without real commitment to the day-to-day work needed to serve his constituents well. It also suggests that Bond may have had a substance abuse problem. Whatever Bond’s version of these events might be is not recounted here, but Lewis won the contest and lost Bond’s friendship.

John Lewis has been the First District representative from Georgia since the late 1980s. By his own description, he is pudgier and balder than the young man inspired by Dr. King forty-four years ago. He still professes to believe in the idea of a "beloved community" (his term), a polity in which citizens live together peaceably in an interracial democracy. The book does not purport to list his accomplishments in Washington, although I suspect there are many. But whatever his record as a congressman, John Lewis will always be remembered as a courageous man who stood up for the cause of freedom with dignity, integrity and love. And Walking with the Wind will, I hope, be recalled as an inspiring memoir of his life and movement.