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Rep. John Lewis Looks Back On The Struggle For Voting Rights


This is FRESH AIR. Another National Book Award winner this week is John Lewis, the longtime civil rights leader and Georgia congressman. His book called "March: Book 3," co-written with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell, won in the category of young people's literature. It's a graphic novel dramatizing the now-famous voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery for which Lewis was one of the leaders. Terry spoke with John Lewis in 2009 the day before the first inauguration of President Barack Obama. John Lewis told Terry that he grew up in Alabama at a time when there was one county whose population was 80 percent African-American. But there wasn't a single black voter.



Congressman Lewis, welcome to FRESH AIR. And thank you so much for joining us. When you were a young man, were you ever challenged at the polls? Did you have a hard time registering, or did anyone ever try to prevent you from voting?

JOHN LEWIS: When I was growing up in rural Alabama, it was impossible for me to register to vote until I moved to Tennessee, to Nashville, as a student.

GROSS: Why was it impossible?

LEWIS: Black men and women were not allowed to register to vote. My own mother, my own father, my grandfather and my uncles and aunts could not register to vote because each time they attempted to register to vote, they were told they could not pass the literacy test. And many people were so intimidated, so afraid that they would lose their jobs - they would be evicted from the farms - they almost gave up.

GROSS: Your parents were sharecroppers. Now...

LEWIS: My mother and father and many of my relatives had been sharecroppers. They had been tenant farmers like so many people in the South. They knew the stories that had occurred. They knew places in Alabama where people were evicted from their farm, from their plantation.

GROSS: Now, because of that, did your parents tell you not to bother to try to vote because it would be dangerous? They might lose their farm? I mean, you were educated. You could certainly pass the literacy test.

LEWIS: My parents told me in the very beginning as a young child when I raised the question about segregation and racial discrimination - they told me not to get in the way, not to get in trouble. But we had people that were educated. We had teachers. We had high school principals, people teaching in colleges and university in Tuskegee, Ala. But they were told they failed the so-called literacy test.

GROSS: One of the more dramatic moments of the civil-rights movement was a march that you helped lead in 1965 of about 600 people. The march was supposed to be from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., demanding voting rights. But the marchers were stopped soon after you started marching. And you were beaten by the police. Would you talk first a little bit about the goal of that march?

LEWIS: In 1965, the attempted march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7 was planned to dramatize to the state of Alabama and to the nation that people of color wanted to register to vote. In Selma, you could only attempt to register to vote on the first and third Mondays of each month. You had to go down to the courthouse and get a copy of the so-called literacy test and attempt to pass the test. And people stood in line day in and day out, failing to get a copy of the test or failing to pass the test.

So after several hundred people had been arrested and people had been beaten and one young man had been shot and killed, we decided to march. And on Sunday afternoon, about 600 of us left a little church called Brown Chapel AME Church and started walking in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion through the streets of Selma. We were walking in twos, no one saying a word. We came to the edge of the bridge crossing the Alabama River.

We continued to walk. We came to the highest point on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Down below, we saw a sea of blue - Alabama state troopers. And a man identified himself and said, I'm Maj. John Cloud of the Alabama state troopers. This is an unlawful march. I give you three minutes to disperse and return to your church.

In less than a minute and a half, the major said, troopers advance. And you saw these men putting on their gas masks. They came toward us, beating us with bullwhips, nightsticks, trivving (ph) us with horses and releasing the tear gas. I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. I thought I was going to die. I had a concussion there at the bridge. And almost 44 years later, I don't recall how I made it back across that bridge through the streets of Selma.

But I do recall being back at the church that Sunday afternoon. The church was full to capacity, more than 2,000 people on the outside. And someone said to me, John, say something to the audience. Speak to them. And I stood up and said something like, I don't understand it - how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam but cannot send troops to Selma, Ala., to protect people who only desire is to register to vote.

GROSS: What was the impact, do you think, of that march on the actual passage of the Voting Rights Act?

LEWIS: The march created a sense of righteous indignation among the American people. When they saw the photographs, when they read the stories, when they heard the news on the radio, watched it on television, they didn't like it. A few days after Bloody Sunday, there was demonstration in more than 80 American cities. People were demanding that the government act.

President Johnson didn't like what he saw. He called Governor Wallace, the governor of Alabama at the time, to come to Washington and tried to get assurance from the governor that he would be able to protect us if we decided to march again. The governor could not assure the president. So President Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard, called up part of the United States military. And eight days after Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon Johnson spoke to a joint session of the Congress and made one of the most meaningful speeches any American president had made in modern time on the whole question of voting rights and introduced the Voting Rights Act.

And at one point in the speech, before Dr. - before President Johnson, rather, concluded the speech, he said, and we shall overcome. And we shall overcome. I looked at Dr. King. Tears came down his face. And we all cried a little to hear President Johnson say, and we shall overcome. And he said to me and to others in the room, we will make it from Selma to Montgomery, and the Voting Rights Act will be passed.

Finally, two weeks after Bloody Sunday, we started on the third effort to make it from Selma to Montgomery. Three hundred of us marched all of the way. But by the time we walked into Montgomery, there were more than 25,000. And that effort led the Congress to debate the Voting Rights Acts and pass that act. And President Johnson signed it into law in August of 1965.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about how your mindset changed to go from what your parents told you, which was don't make trouble - it's too risky - to making a lot of trouble, to leading marches, to be willing to get beaten on the head and knocked unconscious to stand up for what you thought was right?

LEWIS: When growing up, I saw segregation. I saw racial discrimination. I saw those signs that said white men, colored men, white women, colored women, white waiting. And I didn't like it. I would ask my mother and ask my parents over and over again, why? They said, that's the way it is. Don't get in the way. Don't get in trouble. I was so inspired by Rosa Parks in 1955. I was 15 years old. I was inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. I heard his words on all radio. It seemed like he was saying to me, John Lewis, you, too, can make a contribution.

He was speaking at a church in Montgomery. And he was saying, in effect, that we must not just be concerned about the pearly gates and the streets with milk and honey. We have to be concerned about the streets of Montgomery and the doors of Woolworth - that we have to be concerned about jobs, about blacks working as cashiers and bringing down those signs.

I was so inspired by Dr. King that in 1956, with some of my brothers and sisters and first cousins - I was only 16 years old - we went down to the public library, trying to check out some books. And we were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only and not for colors. It was a public library. I never went back to that public library until July 5, 1998 - by this time I'm in the Congress - for a book signing of my book, "Walking With The Wind."

GROSS: (Laughter) Your memoir.

LEWIS: And they gave me a library card after the program was over. And I was inspired. I studied the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence in Nashville as a student. And I staged a sitting-in in the fall of 1959 and got arrested the first time in February 1960.

GROSS: Congressman John Lewis, thank you so much for talking with us.

LEWIS: Well, thank you very much. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Georgia Congressman John Lewis speaking to Terry Gross in 2009. His graphic novel about his civil-rights activities "March: Book 3" just won the National Book Award for young people's literature. Here's what he said at the awards ceremony.


LEWIS: Thank you. This is unreal. This is unbelievable. Some of you know I grew up in rural Alabama very, very poor - very few books in our home. And I remember in 1956, when I was 16 years old, with some of my brothers and sisters and cousins, going down to the public library, trying to get a library card. And we were told that the library was for whites only and not for colors. And to come here, receive this award, this honor - it's too much.

(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.