Holocaust Museum: Civil rights giant stays determined to get in the way
U.S. Congressman John Lewis, a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, speaks at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie. Lewis was the first speaker in a new lecture series introduced by the museum. | Allison Williams~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 24, 2011 3:34AM
The former “Freedom Rider” and the last living civil rights leader who spoke at the historic March on Washington rally more than 47 years ago still believes in “getting in the way” to fight injustice in the world.
That’s how U.S. Congressman John Lewis says he has always lived his life, offering that politics is a continuation of the principles that guided him as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement.
During a stirring and inspirational speech Thursday at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, Lewis, the legendary Georgia congressman, made clear that the evil of the Holocaust and the struggle of African Americans for civil rights in the United States can’t be compared -- at least not in their entirety.
But there is some overlap, the congressman said, emphasizing that the survivors of the darkest of inhumanity are forever tied together by their experiences.
“We must recognize that our human suffering at the hand of humankind creates this unbroken and unbelievable bond that is unique,” the congressman said.
Lewis also noted the large number of Jewish men and women who contributed to the Civil Rights Movement. They knew the ramifications of hate, intolerance and injustice, he said, and they decided they had to get in the way.
Last year, Lewis visited a memorial in Germany and came face to face with the darkest side of history.
“I asked myself, ‘How could this happen?’” he said, his commanding voice with a subtle southern drawl filling the room. “How could human beings be so distorted, so confused about the truth that they actually believe they must eradicate their brothers and sisters to find peace? What is it about the human heart, what is in our DNA that could make us so evil and so blind?”
Lewis, 71, was the first speaker of a new ongoing lecture series from the museum called “Voices of Conscience.” He spoke of his childhood in rural Alabama only 40 miles from Montgomery, raising chickens as a boy on 110 acres of property purchased by his father for $300.
“I fell in love with raising these chickens like no one else could raise chickens,” he said. “I know here in this community you’re very smart. You’re gifted. You’re talented. But you don’t know anything about raising chickens.”
As a boy, Lewis wanted to be a minister and rounded up his brothers and sisters and cousins to preach with the livestock surrounding them. The chickens bowed and shook their heads and listened reverentially, he said, but he never heard them say ‘Amen.’”
“I’m convinced that some of those chickens that I preached to in the ‘40s and the ‘50s tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues listen to me today in the Congress,” he cracked, eliciting loud laughter inside the filled auditorium.
The Holocaust Museum billed Lewis as “a giant of the Civil Rights Movement” and noted that he has been referred to as “one of the most courageous persons the Civil Rights Movement has ever produced.”
It’s difficult to consider any of those laudatory words hyperbole.
He served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); organized the first lunch counter sit-in in 1959 when he was only 19; became the youngest of the 10 speakers at the historic March on Washington four years later (He was speaker six, Martin Luther King Jr. was speaker 10); helped coordinate the Mississippi Freedom Project in 1964; and led the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery to petition for voting rights where marchers were violently confronted on “Bloody Sunday.”
In 2010, Lewis received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
To say that Lewis has stared down difficult challenges and faced hard times would be an epic understatement. But what came across to his audience as remarkable is his unwavering and eternal optimism -- his belief that people can still make a difference and that there is always light ahead.
Asked about the national Tea Party movement and the disparaging comments made about Lewis and others, he seemed to take it all in stride.
“We’re going through a phase,” he said. “We’ll come out. This too shall pass.”
The overriding message of his talk was that people must stand up for what is right, fight for justice, “get in the way” when it matters most.
A riveting speaker, his first-hand recounting of the struggle for civil rights was delivered to maximum effect, punctuated by deep cadences in raised and hushed volumes, his inflections and pauses worthy of the meaningful minister he once wanted to become.
At age 15, Lewis heard a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. about the Rosa Parks bus boycott and the importance of getting involved. He felt King was talking directly to him.
“I knew then it was possible to strike a blow against legalized segregation and sanctioned discrimination,” he said. “I decided to make trouble. I decided to get in the way. Because it was good trouble. It was necessary trouble.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders when people came together to ride buses into the segregated south. Many of those people were Jewish -- teachers, rabbis, lawyers and all other professions, Lewis said.
He and his Greyhound Bus seat-mate tried to enter a business designated for whites only and were attacked by a group of men. They were beaten and left lying in a pool of blood, Lewis recalled.
One of the attackers visited the congressman in his office a couple of years ago — apologizing, crying, asking for forgiveness.
“He gave me a hug. I gave him a hug,” Lewis said. “I started crying. I’ve seen this person several times since. We call each other brothers. We have to create a world at peace with itself.”
This is just one of several stories the congressman drew from to show that change in the world is possible.
“If someone had told me when I was riding on that Greyhound bus from Nashville to the deep South, if someone had told me when I was being arrested for a time, left bloody on that bridge in Selma with a concussion, that one day I would be standing here serving in the Congress with a young African American as president, I would say you’re crazy. You’re out of your mind. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
But the struggle for justice isn’t over, he said. And those who have survived great injustice serve an important role as educators who can lead the way.
“One powerful lesson regarding all the crimes against humanity is that you can abuse us, maim us, torture and even kill us, but the truth that these men and women stood up for never dies,” Lewis said.
“The truth of love, the truth and wonders of all humanity can never be destroyed. We all must find a way to get in the way.”