John Lewis Looks Ahead

The civil rights icon on Selma, impeachment and the art of making “good trouble”

By Jamile Smith | The RollingStone | May 9, 2019

 

Congressman John Lewis’ Washington, D.C., office is filled from floor to ceiling with photographs and souvenirs from a lifetime of activism: the Freedom Rides he risked his life for from the age of 21; the March on Washington, where Lewis wrote a speech so fiery that Martin Luther King Jr. advised him to tone it down; the voting-rights work in Selma, Alabama, where, as head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis was beaten by state troopers during the march to Montgomery.

Looking at this wall of history, one is reminded that Lewis represents so much more than Georgia’s Fifth District. He has become the custodian of America’s moral character. During his 33 years in Congress, Lewis, 79, has not only led the charge for legislative victories like Obamacare but has staged a sit-in on the House floor to draw attention to Republicans’ refusal to take up gun control. Arrested more than 40 times in the Sixties, Lewis was put in cuffs as recently as 2013 for a protest outside the Capitol over immigration reform. He refused to attend Trump’s inauguration (as he did George W. Bush’s), skipped both of Trump’s State of the Union addresses, and even boycotted the 2017 opening of a civil-rights museum in Mississippi that Trump attended. The president’s policies are an insult to the people portrayed in the museum, said Lewis, who understands better than anyone the stakes involved as today’s Republicans erode many of the same civil-rights victories that he bled to win.

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The congressman speaks in such a distinctive and weighty cadence that it’s almost startling to hear him say something as mundane as “Good afternoon” when he greets me with a firm handshake at his office door. The fight in his voice is never far from the surface. I ask Lewis if he still considers himself a radical. “I believe that I’m a radical for fairness,” he tells me. “A radical for justice. A radical for the truth.”

We’re speaking on what would have been Dr. King’s 90th birthday. What would you have wanted to talk to your friend about today? I would say, “Dr. King, we have come a distance, we have made some progress, but we still have a great distance to go before we lay down the burden of racism. There have been so many setbacks since you left. We have someone, the head of our government, who, in the finality, is a racist. He doesn’t understand the meaning of your life and the significance of the civil-rights movement. But I truly believe, somehow and some way, we will not give up, we will not give in. We will continue to do what we must to create what you called the Beloved Community. We will do what we must to redeem the soul of America.”

I think you are uniquely qualified to tell us how dangerous a time this is for the country. I hate to say it, but I think we’re in deep trouble. We have to find ways to get people a greater sense of hope. You worry about our future, as a people and as a nation. Sometimes you’re afraid to go to sleep, to turn off the radio or the television or to pick up a book or a newspaper and read. These are times, we heard it over and over again, they’re trying souls.

Do you have diversions that help keep your mind right? Here and there. But I have never been like this, even during the height of the civil-rights movement.

Really? Never. During those days, there was a greater sense of hope and optimism.

Marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge [in Selma], you had more hope than you do now? Yeah, I was very hopeful when we were marching across that bridge. I was very, very hopeful when we were sitting in or speaking at the March on Washington. But we cannot lose hope.

Martin Luther King Jr., (with hat) flanked by his wife Coretta (right) and John Lewis (far right), leads a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, March 1965. (AP Photo)

The March: Lewis (blue sweater) with Martin Luther King Jr. (white hat) and Coretta King leading a march to Montgomery in 1965. Photo credit: AP

The March: Lewis (blue sweater) with Martin Luther King Jr. (white hat) and Coretta King leading a march to Montgomery in 1965. Photo credit: AP

How do we get that hope back? Obama can’t run again [laughs]. I just think all these young Democrats that are talki