Tulane University Scholar and 2017 Ubben Posse Fellow Younes Boulares with his host U.S. Congressman John Lewis.

Ubben Posse Fellow Interviews: Congressman John Lewis

Fall 2017 | National

The Jeff Ubben Posse Fellows Program awards five exceptional Posse Scholars $10,000 each and the chance to spend 4-6 weeks during the summer shadowing and learning from a major industry leader. The interview below with Congressman John Lewis was conducted by Posse Scholar Younes Boulares, now in his junior year at Tulane University, who worked with Rep. Lewis as a 2017 Jeff Ubben Posse Fellow. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

YOUNES: I’ve learned a lot about the Civil Rights Movement and your role in it. What drove you to be a leader in the movement?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I grew up on a farm in rural Alabama. My father had been a share cropper on a tenant farm, just a wonderful, hardworking man. My mother, just a wonderful, hardworking woman. I remember in 1944, when I was 4 years old (and I do remember when I was 4), my father had saved 300 dollars and a man sold him 110 acres of land. We still own this land today.

We’d be working in the field, and I would say, “This is hard work.” And my mother would say, “Hard work never killed anybody!” And I’d say, “Well, it’s about to kill me.”

I was determined to get out of that field. I wanted to get an education. But growing up, I would see signs that said, “White Men,” “Colored Men,” “White Waiting,” “Colored Waiting,” and my mother and father would say, “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.”

Then, when I was 15 years old, I heard of Rosa Parks. I heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the radio. It seemed like Dr. King was speaking directly to me, saying, “John Robert Lewis, you too can do something. You can get involved. You can lead.”

I wanted to attend a college. Today it’s known as Troy University. Submitted my application and never heard a word. They didn’t admit black students. I wrote a letter to Dr. King and told him I needed his help. He sent me a round-trip Greyhound bus ticket and invited me to Montgomery to meet with him.

In the meantime, I had been accepted to another college in Nashville, Tennessee, but when I was home for spring break I traveled from Troy to Montgomery. A young lawyer by the name of Fred Gray drove me to the First Baptist Church, pastored by the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, and ushered me into the Pastor’s office. Dr. King was there. He said to me, “Are you the boy from Troy? Are you John Lewis?”

I said, “Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis." I gave my whole name. But he still called me the boy from Troy. And I was turned on. I was inspired to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

Who have you met in your career in politics, after the movement, who has really inspired you?

I remember reading about Nelson Mandela and this unbelievable bishop, Desmond Tutu. I made a trip to South Africa to meet with Mandela, and he said, “John Lewis, you don’t need to tell me anything about yourself, I know all about you.”

With Mandela, you knew and felt that you were in the presence of more than history, but in the presence of an unbelievable, gifted, proud, brave, courageous soul. He inspired people, not just in Africa, but all around the world.

Can you point to a moment when you felt that you, and we, as Americans, had realized Dr. King’s dream?

When President Barack Obama was elected. That night, I was in the church in Atlanta. He won Pennsylvania, Ohio, and then I knew it was over. I jumped up so high, I didn’t think my feet were gonna touch the floor. Hours later, reporters asked me why I was crying so much. I said it was tears of joy, tears of happiness.

I was crying for the people who never lived to cast a vote. The people that didn’t live to see the first African-American elected President. I was crying for President Johnson, for President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and other political leaders that did so much.

For the young people that marched, for the young men that were beaten, shot and killed in Mississippi. For the four little girls in Birmingham killed in the church bombing. Crying for those who never gave up, never gave in, but didn’t live to see the realization of the dream.

How do you think we can still move towards the society that you, Dr. King and so many others have fought, led and died for?

The late A. Philip Randolph would say during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, “Maybe our foremothers and our forefathers all came to this great land in different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.” I think that that’s still true today.

Dr. King said that we have to create what he called the beloved community. The young leaders of the 21st century will get us there, I believe that, but each generation must continue to lead and not be afraid, but be bold, be courageous.

I want to bring up forgiveness, and Elwin Wilson. He’s a former Klansman from Rock Hill, South Carolina, who has admitted to assaulting you in the 1960s. You accepted his apology, saying you both don’t want to go back, you want to move forward. What advice can you give all of us on how to open up our hearts?

I remember so well when we were beaten and left bloody and unconscious at that Greyhound bus station. This gentleman, Elwin Wilson, came to my office in Washington in 2013 and said that he had been a member of the Klan, that he had participated in the beating of us.

He said, “I want to apologize. Will you accept my apology, will you forgive me?” He started crying. His son started crying. They hugged me, I hugged them back, and I started crying.

I think he was inspired by President Obama. He came here less than a month after the President had been inaugurated.

Something happens to all of us, as we grow older, as we learn and listen. It is the power of the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. It is saying, in effect, that hate is too heavy a burden to bear. That we have to move to a point where we can just be simple human beings.

Read More:
Ubben Posse Fellow Interviews: Jason Blum
Ubben Posse Fellow Interviews: Joseph Stiglitz
Ubben Posse Fellow Interviews: Cecilia Conrad
Ubben Posse Fellow Interviews: Karen and Irwin Redlener

Meet the 2017 Jeff Ubben Posse Fellows.