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Biographical Details of Leadership
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BOND: Congressman Lewis, thank you for being with us today.
LEWIS: Well, thank you very much. I'm delighted and very pleased and happy to be with you.
BOND: Thank you. I want to begin with some questions about the Brown decision in '54. When you heard about this, what did it mean to you?
LEWIS: Julian, when I heard about the Brown decision in 1954, I was so happy, I was so pleased. I was fourteen years old, in the ninth grade. I felt for the first time I would be attending a desegregated school. I would no longer have the hand-me-down books or riding on a broken-down school bus passing the white school in order to get to what we called the Pike County Training School.
BOND: And what did it turn out to mean?
LEWIS: Well, in reality, it meant a long, hard struggle that for me personally I wouldn't have the opportunity to attend a desegregated school, but it did light a fire that Brown had inspired a people to say that if we can get some help and some support from the Supreme Court of Washington, then we have to get up and move and continue the effort to desegregate not just public education in America, but to end segregation and racial discrimination in all areas of the American society.
BOND: At the same time, you write in your autobiography that it created some kind of disappointment in the court system, the failure to implement Brown right away. Do you remember that?
LEWIS: I remember it so well. You know, a year later or so, the Supreme Court came back, I guess in 1955, and the doctrine with all deliberate speed and we were still waiting for that speed. It didn't happen. It never happened for me and for many other young people in the South, it never happened. The full force of the federal government during those years were never really put behind the implementation of that decision. Dwight Eisenhower had to make a decision -- President Eisenhower -- based on a court order to desegregate Central High in 1957, but it was a long, hard, tedious, and dangerous struggle for a lot of young people, for children, and not just for children going to elementary or middle school or high school but even for people to desegregate public universities in the American South.
BOND: Would you describe your reaction as kind of initial optimism -- great hope -- and then disappointment?
LEWIS: Oh, I would say in the beginning, it was a tremendous amount of hope, a great sense of optimism, but over the years, as I would travel on that yellow school bus and pass the beautiful shining white school to get to this black school, my sense of hope was dashed.
BOND: Let me go into some background and education. Who are the people you think most responsible for your development as a civil rights leader, as an adult, when you were coming along?
LEWIS: When I was coming along, I had one wonderful teacher. She was from Montgomery, and she would come down to the little community outside of Troy during the week and on the weekends she would go back to Montgomery. She was a wonderful woman. She was both a teacher and -- in the classroom, but also a librarian and she would say, "Read, my child, read, read everything."
BOND: What was her name?
LEWIS: Her name was Coreen Harvey. And I tried to read everything and people accused me of being nosy, but I was not nosy. I wanted to know. I asked a lot of questions and she would say, "Read, read." We didn?t have that many books at home, so I would read the books at school or read newspapers, especially black newspapers, The Afro, The Pittsburgh Courier, Ebony, and Jet and I tried to read everything. We didn?t have a subscription to the local newspaper, The Montgomery Advertiser, but my grandfather had a subscription, and when he would finish reading his newspaper every day, we would get his newspaper and read his newspaper. It was part of our contact with the outside world. So she inspired me a great deal. And my mother would tell us to work and to study, so we worked very hard growing up and so you had to try to learn as much as possible and to become imbued with the sense of getting an education.
BOND: And again, in your autobiography, you mention Uncle Otis. Who is Uncle Otis?
LEWIS: Uncle Otis was a wonderful man, my mother's youngest mother. He was a twin. And she had eight brothers and at a young age, he lost his mother -- my mother's mother, my grandmother -- and so he came to live with us and we called him Otis but he was really our uncle. He was just a few years older and he went off to high school to study, to stay in Montgomery and later stayed with a family and went to college in Montgomery, but he would come back to stay with us on weekends. And he encouraged me to go to school and to get an education. And when I got ready to go off to college, he gave me a footlocker that I still have.
LEWIS: He gave a footlocker and a hundred dollar bill. And I put everything that I owned in that footlocker, my few books and my clothing, and it was my Uncle Otis probably more than anyone said, "You've got to go to college, you've got to get an education."
BOND: And you also mentioned earlier on, you get to the American Baptist Theological Seminary and you meet James Bevel. What influence did he have?
LEWIS: Well, I met James Bevel. James Bevel, a young man who had been born in Itta Bena, Mississippi, in a very large family, twelve or thirteen children, and at an early age, his family moved to Cleveland where he grew up. And later, as a young man, he'd go off to the Navy, and then he decided when he came back that he would go to school. And I met him at American Baptist. He was a very -- sort of flashy, talkative. He just talked all the time and make speeches and especially when he was in the shower, you could hear him from one end of the hall to the other, just preaching and talking as loud -- and he was saying, "You get an education, you become a minister and you go and get a church." He had a great deal of influence because he was very talkative.
I was very quiet. I didn't talk that much. I talked in the classroom. I responded when someone called on me, but I was not someone always just talking, talking. And Bevel just talked and he encouraged people to talk, and he would tease you. And later when the non-violent workshops started in Nashville, I started attending the non-violent workshops and I invited Bevel to come and Bevel got involved. So I think we influenced each other during that period of time.
BOND: And what about professors? John Lewis Powell, you mentioned.
LEWIS: Oh, John Lewis Powell was a wonderful teacher. He was -- you know, later he became Oprah Winfrey's pastor in Nashville. He would run around the classroom --
LEWIS: -- and making things so real and so simple. He wanted us all to be good, to do our best as young ministers, as leaders in the community. He was very daring. He was very courageous. And he didn't hold back.
BOND: Now, I know that you had listened to Martin Luther King's broadcasts from Montgomery during the bus boycott and that was an influence, but Powell is also talking about the Social Gospel. Explain the Social Gospel to us.
LEWIS: Well, Dr. Rev. John Lewis Powell, he was saying, in effect, using the same type of words and phrases that Dr. King would use and a social religious theologian, I guess, or social theologian -- a guy by the name of Walter Rauschenbusch, who was pastor of a church and very involved during Hell's Kitchen in New York City -- and Powell said, as Dr. King would say, "You just cannot be concerned about the over yonder, you've got to be concerned about the down here and now. You can't just be concerned about the pearly gates and the streets of -- and doors of heaven. You've got to be concerned about the streets of Nashville and the door of Woolsworth."
We had two department stores there, two large department stores, one called Cain-Sloan and one called Harvey's. And he was saying, "We've got to be concerned about Harvey's and Cain-Sloan and not just over yonder. You just cannot be concerned about the soul of a person, but also about the body. You must minister to the whole person, and not just the spiritual side in the hereafter but you've got to be concerned and be involved in the here and now." And John Lewis Powell made it very plain and very clear to all of us.
BOND: Now, were these ideas of the Social Gospel coming from King and then coming from [Rev. Dr. John Lewis] Powell -- were these radical thoughts to you or different kinds of thoughts than you had expected that you as a fledgling minister might pursue?
LEWIS: When I was growing up -- I must tell you, when I was growing up I saw the contradiction. We were singing certain hymns of the church, and we would hear certain sermons. We would be taught one thing in Sunday School and then in the larger world, we saw something else. And so I was very receptive to what I was hearing when I heard Dr. King on the radio, when I heard and met John Lewis Powell, Dr. Powell, as a student, and later when I met another young minister by the name of Kelly Miller Smith in Nashville. So all of this had an amazing impact on my thinking and my outlook that you just had to be out there and become part of disturbing things because even if you go back to the New Testament, one passage of scripture, I think it's Matthew, the tenth chapter in the 10:34 verse, where the Great Teacher said, "Think not that I come to bring peace but a sword." He was not talking about a physical sword, he was talking about a spiritual sword. "I come to disturb the order of things," and was saying, in effect, I come to bring real peace, true peace, not a negative peace, and when that peace comes -- in order to bring that peace about, there's a struggle between the forces of division and the forces of reconciliation or between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, between the forces of hate and love. So in a sense, if we were going to be true to our calling, in our mission, we had to part of disturbing things.
BOND: It's you, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel, and probably other names I can't recall right now.
LEWIS: Well, it was individuals like Paul Brooks --
BOND: Paul Brooks.
LEWIS: -- and others, but I had Bevel one semester as a roommate and then Bernard Lafayette probably a year, and we were always talking to each other, we always were preaching to each other, trying to convince the other one that this is the right thing to do, this is what we had to do, that it was not enough to go out and pastor a church -- and that is good -- but you have to move before, beyond a little church in the countryside of Tennessee or outside of Nashville. You just cannot be limited to four walls. You have to get out there in the larger society and the larger community. So that was a real struggle and we would argue about that and sometimes at three or four o'clock in the morning.
BOND: But there must have been other classmates of yours who said, "No, I'm just going to be a pastor. I'm going to have my church. I'm going to talk about salvation and the great by and by. I'm not going to -- " There must have been people who said no.
LEWIS: Oh, we did have several classmates and schoolmates and others saying, "You're call to preach the gospel. You're called to save souls. It's not your business to go out there and get in the streets of Nashville or get on the Freedom Ride or going and sitting in. You're called-- Let somebody else do that. Let the lawyers, let the NAACP, let CORE, let Dr. King and the SCLC. That's not your role." But some of us saw it as our role.
BOND: Do you think any of those people ever got converted?
LEWIS: Oh, I think many of those young men and women became converted because what they saw us doing from time to time was in keeping with our faith. And they couldn't stay in the fight to see the point, when we came to the point where we were beaten, arrested and sent to jail, they identified with us and they became part of that effort.
BOND: One other name I want to mention is Jim Lawson. Tell us about him.
LEWIS: Jim Lawson. Jim Lawson was an unbelievable human being. Born in Ohio. He was a pacifist. He studied Gandhi. He was part of the Methodist Student Movement. He lived in India. He became an organizer for FOR, the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He came South and started working in Nashville and later as a student at Vanderbilt. And it was Jim Lawson who started conducting the first non-violent workshop in Nashville in the fall of 1959.
BOND: A year before the sit-ins begin.
LEWIS: A year before the sit-ins in Greensboro. And Jim Lawson, even -- maybe even before the fall because we had test sit-ins in the fall in November and December 1959 in Nashville, so long before that time Jim had been conducting these non-violent workshops at a little Methodist church near Fisk University campus and every Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m., a small group of students from the different colleges and universities would meet and listen to Jim Lawson. He would discuss and debate the great religions of the world and then discuss the role of civil disobedience and he taught us what Gandhi attempted to do in South Africa, what he accomplished in India, and we started talking about Dr. King. We spent a great deal of time on Thoreau and civil disobedience. And finally, we were eager. We were eager students, but we had sort of -- just took all of this in.
We were ready to test some of this stuff that he was telling us. And the day came when a small group of black and white college students and some foreign students went downtown to one of the large department stores, and went in to the restaurant or the lunch counter, and took our seats, and which established the fact that this particular store, that the restaurant and the lunch counter would refuse to serve us. That's all we wanted to establish and we were denied service. We got up in an orderly fashion and left. And a few days later we went to another department store and did the same thing. The same thing happened. We got up and left. And we continued the non-violent workshop and then after the sit-ins started in Greensboro, North Carolina, we received a telephone call from a young Methodist minister in Greensboro, at least in North Carolina, who knew Jim Lawson and said, "Jim, what can the students in Nashville do to be supportive of students?" And Jim told him we were already having a non-violent workshop. We had two test sit-ins and we were ready. And we started sitting in on a regular basis.
BOND: You know, it almost sounds magical that Lawson is conducting these sit-ins, these test sit-ins in Nashville, while up in Greensboro, these four young men almost coincidentally on February 1st have their sit-in. And that sit-in in Greensboro sends a signal to young black people all over the South that you can do the same kind of thing. It just seems amazing to me that Nashville, Greensboro, these things are happening in isolation to each other -- you don't know about each other -- and all of a sudden, they all come together.
LEWIS: It is sort of strange and almost eerie for something like this to happen. I called it a spirit of history. Something is moving. People get caught up in something and it just -- it had to happen. The timing and everything just sort of came together. I think it was some force, some power. It was time. It was time.
I'll tell you one thing -- Martin Luther King, Jr. was so happy. He was so gratified when the young people started sitting in all across the South. He knew then that his method and his message of non-violence was beginning to catch on and spread around the South.
BOND: One thing in common, many of these figures here like Reverend Kelly Miller Smith, Reverend John Lewis Powell, Reverend Jim Lawson, and Reverend James Bevel have is they're all ministers and you're studying to be a minister at this time. What does religion have to do with all this, for you and for all the people involved?
LEWIS: Well, I think many of us saw getting involved in the civil rights movement during those early days as an extension of our faith -- that we couldn't be true to our faith, we couldn't be true to our calling unless we somehow in some way got out there and pushed to desegregate the South, but we also had individuals like Martin Luther King, Jr., and maybe even Jim Lawson before Dr. King in Nashville talking about the Beloved Community. That is the essence of the kingdom that -- we talk about bringing the Kingdom, creating the Kingdom here on Earth as it is in heaven, so if you're going to create the Kingdom, you've got to create the Beloved Community. You've got to create a community at peace with itself. When you forget about race and color and see people as people, as human beings, as sisters and brothers, as part of the wholeness of humanity. So it was very much, I think, an extension of our faith.
And religion also gave us this sense of hope, that -- this sense of, "Yes, you may beat me, you may arrest me, you may jail me, you may shoot and kill me, but in the process -- in the process -- we're going to redeem the soul of America." And that's what Dr. King preached about on many occasions. We're going to change America. We're going to redeem the soul of America. We're going to make America something different, something better.
BOND: At the same time, non-violence is not a normal human reaction. If someone hits you, bam -- your first response, hit them back. How did you and the others in the Nashville movement and in the larger movement beyond, how did you overcome this very human impulse to strike back?
LEWIS: Well, when you look at the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence, for many of us as individuals of faith, it was in keeping with our teaching that it is better to love than to hate. It is better to be able to forgive and look at your fellow man or your fellow human being as your brother and as your sister. So we weren't out to destroy a person. We were out to change that person. So --
You know, in Nashville perhaps more than any other place, we had what we called role playing. We had social drama. We would get a group of black students and white students and sometimes the blacks would play the role of whites and the whites would play the role of blacks and sometime we would be on an interracial team. And we went through drills and we would pretend that we were pouring water on people, and we did actually pour water on people, not very hot water. It might be we were spitting at them, and I remember Bernard Layafette, we would take a cigarette or a cigar and then take the smoke and blow it into someone's face, and then he would use the "N" word, call the people, you know, you nigger lover and just call them all -- and they have to sit there and take it, but that was part of discipline. And some people said, you know, "I cannot do this. I cannot take it." But we had a hard core group of black and white students and young ministers that were prepared, in Nashville during those early years, to die.
BOND: Now, the Nashville student is unique in many different ways. First, that it had this interracial component because you had these exchange students going to Fisk. Secondly, that you had this deep training in non-violence, which most people in the rest of the movement didn't. I remember when we sat in in Atlanta, they just said, "Don't hit back." That was it, but at the same time, despite the deep training and grounding you had and these drills you'd been through, in almost all of the movement, acceptance of non-violence for the participants was almost immediate. How do you account for that?
LEWIS: There was this unbelievable sense of "I don't want to do anything to mess up. I don't want to do anything to embarrass the movement." Just part of a cause. And there were people saying, you know, "I want to try to do it. If I cannot do it, I'll get off the stool. I'll leave. I just won't go down. I'll make a picket sign, I'll drive people to the scene, to the church, to the point to be picked up and taken downtown," but it was this unbelievable effort.
Now, in Nashville I think some of the young people grew to accept non-violence, not simply as a technique or as a tactic, but as a way of life, as a way of living. And then there was others who accepted it just for during the time they were participating in the movement, but in the process, I think some grew to adhere to non-violence more and more so as a way of life, as a way of living.
We had little what we called do's and don'ts, similar to what was said in Atlanta during the Atlanta movement. But we had little things like "do sit up straight," "do not lie afoul," "do not talk back," "obey your leader," and then near the end, it says something like "remember the teaching of Jesus, Gandhi, Thoreau, and Martin Luther King, Jr." At the end, it said, "May God bless you." And that day when we had the mass arrests, on February 27th, 1960, eighty-nine of us got arrested and every single student had a copy of their do's and don'ts.
BOND: Really? You know what strikes me as a remarkable is that so far as I know in all of the sit-ins, in all of the places all over the South, there's not a single example of a sit-in person striking back. And there's plenty of provocation -- the spitting, the cursing, the yelling, the pushing, the shoving, the ketchup on your hair. How do you account for this -- what is an alien philosophy to many -- catching on and holding on so strong, including people who didn't have this background that you had in Nashville?
LEWIS: It's something, I guess, that's very hard and maybe almost impossible to explain, but I think people became anchored in something. They became committed and dedicated. You've seen this unbelievable photograph. I think it's from a city in Jackson, Mississippi --
LEWIS: -- when Joan Trumpauer and someone is sitting in I think from Tupelo or the city near Nashville, a young white student, exchange student at Fisk named Paul Laprad is sitting in, and these white men come up and pull him off the lunch counter stool and just beat him, just hit him over and over again, and you just sort of catch his head, but he never, never struck back. And I think that was part of the discipline, that people who really believed, they really wanted to make this effort succeed. And I think that's why we succeeded because you saw the image, this unbelievable image of these well-dressed college students sitting in in an orderly, peaceful, non-violent fashion. On many occasions, they were just looking straight ahead, waiting to be served, maybe reading a book, working on a paper, and then someone would come up, spit on them, put a lighted cigarette out in their hair or down their back or pour hot water or coffee on them. And I think there was a contrast and I think what changed things. It appealed to the conscience of the American people.
BOND: Now, of all the names we've mentioned -- and you've already mentioned Martin Luther King -- take us back to your hearing him on the radio. You'd never met him, didn't have any acquaintance with him, but here comes this voice over the radio from the Montgomery Bus Boycott mass meetings. Describe that.
LEWIS: Well, Julian, my friend, I was very young. I was very young -- I was fifteen years old and I heard Dr. King's voice on an old radio station, on WRMA. It was a soul station in Montgomery. I heard him preaching and I just felt like he was preaching to me. I felt like Martin Luther King was saying, "John Lewis, you, too, can do it." And I listened to him move me and I knew he was speaking to me. I knew it from the moment I heard. So I kept up with what was happening in Montgomery. I followed -- you know, that was fifty years ago almost. I followed the drama of Montgomery. It inspired me and I wanted to meet Dr. King.
Somehow I just wanted to make contact with him. And so I never met him until 1958. I tried to read everything, you know, you would get Jet, Jet magazine or you would see the Afro or The Pittsburgh Courier, but the local paper didn't mention much about Dr. King. We had -- years later, before I left home in 1957, I guess two or three years later, we would get The Today Show -- and we would see -- there was a guy by the name of -- years later, by the name of Frank McGee. And Frank McGee who had been in Montgomery during the bus boycott and later went to New York and some time he would talk about Montgomery and talk about Dr. King, and so I followed him, but in 1957 when I finished high school, I wanted to attend Troy State College.
BOND: All white school.
LEWIS: All white school, ten miles from my home. I submitted my application. Had my high school transcript sent. I never heard a word from the school, not one word. I didn't tell my mother, my father, any of my sisters or brothers, anybody. I never heard a word from the school, so I wrote a letter to Dr. King. I just wrote a letter to him. "Dear Dr. King, My name is John Robert Lewis. I'm a graduate of Pike County Training School." Pike County Training School was a school they called for colored. So I told him I wanted to attend Troy State. He wrote me back, sent me a round-trip Greyhound bus ticket and invited me to come to Montgomery.
In the meantime, I had applied to go to American Baptist. So I got accepted to American Baptist and went off to American Baptist September 1957, and after being there for about two or three weeks, I told Kelly Miller Smith that I had been in contact with Dr. King. Kelly Miller Smith was a graduate of Morehouse, the same school that you graduated from, along with Dr. King and others, and he knew Dr. King very well. And he informed Dr. King that I was in Nashville. Dr. King got back in touch with me and suggested when I was home for spring break to come and see him, so in March of 1958, at the age of eighteen, my father drove me to the Greyhound bus station, I boarded a bus, traveled the fifty miles from Troy to Montgomery. And I arrive in downtown Montgomery. A young lawyer -- I'd never seen a lawyer before, black or white -- by the name of Fred Gray, who was a lawyer for Rosa Parks and Dr. King, met me at the Greyhound bus station and drove me to the First Baptist Church in downtown Montgomery, pastored by Rev. Ralph Abernathy. And he ushered me into the office of the church.
I saw Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy standing behind a desk. I was so scared. I didn't know what to say or what to do. And Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke up and said, "Are you the boy from Troy? Are you John Lewis?" And I said, "Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis." I gave my whole name. And we started talking about my going to Troy State, and he told me how dangerous this could be, my folks' home could be burned or bombed, and my mother and father didn't want to have any part of anything to with it, so I continued to stay in Nashville.
BOND: And that was your first meeting with King and Abernathy?
LEWIS: That was my first meeting with Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy. And then years later, I would see Dr. King and Mrs. King, Coretta Scott King, would come to speak at mass meetings and rallies in Nashville. Coretta would tell the story of the movement through song. She would come and put on a performance to raise money to support the Montgomery effort, but also to tell the story of the movement and I would see Dr. King and then when the sit-ins started, I got to know him a little better and then when the Freedom Ride got underway, I saw a great deal of him.
BOND: How do you think -- or was there a moment when you knew that you were going to do what you've done. That rather than just having a church and being a pastor -- and who knows where that church might've been -- that you were going to pursue a life of a social activism. Was there a moment when you knew that was going to happen?
LEWIS: During the Freedom Ride in 1961, I was twenty-one years old and an organization called CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, had sent out an application inviting people, civil rights activists, to apply to become a Freedom Rider, and I applied. I was twenty-one. Well, when I applied, I was not quite twenty-one, but I became twenty-one before I went on the Ride. And I was accepted and so I didn't have to get my parents' okay. And I made a decision then that probably for the rest of my life I would try to do what I could to combat segregation and racial discrimination and to make our society and our country a better place.
I couldn't see myself being confined to a church and to a pulpit every Sunday. That was not what I wanted to do. I thought my calling was something else. It's significant, and I admire the people who can go and preach every Sunday and minister to a flock, but I thought my calling was in another area.
BOND: At the same time, King, who pastored his father's church -- Abernathy, pastor of a church in Montgomery, then in Atlanta -- so here're two men who find ways to combine the regular job of being a pastor with this social -- did that ever enter your mind?
LEWIS: It did enter my mind the possibility of being a pastor of a local congregation, but it was not my calling. It was not -- I didn't see it as my mission. I saw my mission as a full-time complete activist. You know, during those years I was literally married to the movement. That was my -- that was everything. I remember and some times when I think about it and look back on it -- I was very quiet, and you knew that. I was very quiet, but some time back in Nashville, they would say, "John, what do you think?" and I've always said, "We need to find a way to dramatize the issue. We need to find a way to dramatize it. We have to get out there." And even as a Chair of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in some of those meetings, I said, "We've got to continue to push, we've got to continue to pull." And I mean, I believe that today.
BOND: Now, think back a bit to your high school days or even before your high school days and then your days at ABT [American Baptist Theological Seminary]. When do you think you thought of yourself as a leader?
LEWIS: Oh, I think it was much later, because people would say, "You're a leader." And I would say, "No, I'm just a participant." Even during the sit-ins, but even before then, even before -- I think from time to time I got out front. I wanted to do something. And people would call me a leader. In my own family, with my sisters and brothers, I'm the one who would always saying, "Let's do this, let's do that." But even back in 1956 when I was 16 years old with some of my brothers and sisters and first cousins, we had been so inspired by Dr. King, we went down to the public library in 1956 in Troy, Alabama. We were crazy. I'm telling you, we were crazy. It was dangerous.
BOND: What happened?
LEWIS: We went down there. We were trying to get library cards, trying to check out some books and we were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only and not for coloreds. So I never, ever went back to that library. Years later, many years later, I went back to the Pike County Public Library in Troy, Alabama -- but it was a different building -- in 1998, for a book signing for my book, Walking with the Wind, and they gave me an library card. It just took all those many years to get it.
BOND: But there's never a part where you said to yourself -- not in a boastful way -- but "I am a leader and I'm responsible for these other people. I have to give them direction."
LEWIS: Well, during the sit-ins and even before I had been elected president of the student body at American Baptist --
BOND: I mean, that's a leadership position.
LEWIS: Yeah. I mean, I was elected, but -- it was a small student body, but years later when I got involved in the sit-ins, there was a point, what they called a floor leader, that you have been in charge of a group and I felt responsible. I felt responsible, and on another occasion when we went on the Freedom Rides, I was in charge of the Freedom Rides. I became the spokesperson -- that's what they would call it -- the spokesperson or the floor leader in this particular floor at Woolsworth up on what they called the mezzanine. I was in charge of that group. And then on the Freedom Ride where we picked up after CORE dropped the Ride, I was the spokesperson for the group, and so, in a sense, I guess I was a leader. But I always called myself a participant, not a leader. For some reason or somehow I didn't want to emerge as the leader or a leader. I wanted to be considered just one of the participants.
BOND: Within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee which you came to chair, there was this hostility to leadership types. And I remember we used to talk about Martin Luther King sometimes in a disparaging way.
LEWIS: Some of us did.
BOND: Yes, some of us did, but "here comes the leader," and some of us were suspicious of the idea of the leader, one leader and thought, of course, that there were many many leaders. Is that a reflection of these earlier thoughts you had?
LEWIS: Well, again, I admired Martin Luther King, Jr. I loved the man, because without Dr. King inspiring me, I don't know where I would be. I just don't know. So I have always felt you needed somebody but I was not that person. I always felt you needed somebody, but not John Lewis, not John Robert Lewis. It had to be somebody else. You needed someone else to get out front, and so you needed someone to be the embodiment, to be the personification of that idea or that concept or the essence of that struggle, of that movement, and I felt that Martin Luther King, Jr., was that person.
And there were other people, local and indigenous leaders all across the South in the height of the civil rights movement. So you had national and world-known individuals like Martin Luther King, Jr., and you had -- but you also needed those local indigenous people.
BOND: But I think there was also the feeling that the danger of the single leader is that if he stumbles or falls or dies by natural causes, and you've placed all your hope and faith in this person, that when that person is gone, you're left leaderless.
LEWIS: I think I shared that. I shared that during that period that knowing the SNCC and some of the other groups, we believe in a type of group leadership, a consensus leadership, and not just necessarily one person, but a group of individuals, really. And that was one of the beautiful things about the early '60s when we were coming together, whether it was Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, or James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, and others and Dr. King. But it was a sense of solidarity and a sense that somehow, in some way, if something happened to one of us, there would be -- and that was in keeping with the philosophy of non-violence. If something happened to one of us, there would be someone else to step in and take that person's place.
BOND: Was there also connected in some way with non-violence this feeling that you need to seek consensus, that it couldn't be one person saying, "Let's do this, and all of you have to agree with me," that we have to come to some common understanding?
LEWIS: I think that was very much in keeping with the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence. You know, some of our old meetings in Nashville, some of those meetings in Nashville and later as part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, we would meet -- we would meet for a long time. We would meet until we reached consensus or either we would wear each other down until we would have to say, "Yes, I agree, this is the way to go, this is what we must do."
BOND: You mentioned A. Philip Randolph, so I want to talk about a moment -- or you to talk about a moment -- when A. Philip Randolph convinces you to change the remarks you had planned to say at the March on Washington. You had planned to say things that the Kennedy administration didn't want said, and Mr. Randolph intervened and asked if you would change. Describe that to us.
LEWIS: Well, as you well know, during those days leading up to the March on Washington, we all had to prepare a speech. And we had a speech like all the other leaders. The night before the March on Washington I had been informed by Bayard Rustin, or Bay'd (ph.) Rustin, who was the deputy director of the March -- really, assistant to A. Philip Randolph, who said that some people had some problem with my speech, the text of the speech, and there was a meeting in a room of this hotel, and you ought to come down and see what we could do. And there was things that people didn't like in the speech.
BOND: Who was in the meeting?
LEWIS: Well, there was a representative from NAACP, the Urban League, UAW. I think Walter Reuther himself was there. Eugene Carson Blake, from the National Council of Churches. Someone was representing the American Jewish Congress, the American Catholic Conference, because there was ten conveners of the March on Washington, and I think Walter Fauntroy could've been in the meeting for Dr. King and SCLC. And there was part of the speech where I said, "in good conscience, we could not support the administration's proposed civil rights bill for it was too little and too late." And it went on down and said there's not anything in the bill to protect old women and young children involved in peaceful non-violent demonstrations, stuff like that. And then another part of the speech, I said, "The party of Kennedy is the party of Eastland, the party of Rockefeller, the party of Javits, is the party of Goldwater. Where's our party?" And then I said, "Listen, Mr. President, listen, members of Congress, you want to take the revolution out of the streets and put it in our courts," and then went on down and said, "The masses are restless and we would create our own party," but then at the latter part of the speech, near the end of the speech, was a play on words. Some people called it rhetoric.
I said, "if we do not see meaningful progress here today, the day may come when we will not confine our marching on Washington, but we may be forced to march to the south the way Sherman did non-violently." And people thought that was inflammatory. But even before I got to that point, at one part of the speech where I said, "The black masses are restless. We've involved in a serious revolution." There were people who objected to the use of the phrase "black masses." And use of the word "revolution."
A. Philip Randolph came to my rescue. And he said, in his baritone voice, "There's nothing wrong with the use of black masses. I use it myself sometime. There's nothing wrong with the use of the word revolution. I use it myself sometime." But they wanted me to change the phrase related to Sherman. So for the most part, we made those other changes, but we keep the reference to Sherman there. And we got to the March the next day -- just before the March was supposed to get underway, the program. I believe you had made a copy of this.
BOND: Yes, I have a copy of the original speech.
LEWIS: The speech available to the press. And people saw it and other people saw it and the people convening the March, they've seen it, and they were still having problems and A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jim Forman -- our Jim Forman, Executive Secretary of SNCC -- and, I think, Courtland Cox and others, we gathered to the side of Lincoln. I guess that would've been the right side of the statute of Mr. Lincoln. And Forman had a portable typewriter and Mr. Randolph said, "John, we've come this far. Let's stay together for the sake of staying together. For the sake of unity, can we change these words? Can we delete it?" And so we dropped the reference to Mr. Sherman and sort of said, "if we do not see meaningful progress here today, we will march through certain cities."
BOND: That was it. Was that a tough decision for you?
LEWIS: It was tough and at the time I had a sort of a sense of righteous indignation but I got over it.
BOND: It was hard to say no to Mr. Randolph.
LEWIS: It was very hard.
LEWIS: It was very hard and very difficult to say no to A. Philip Randolph, you know, he was a wonderful human being. I've said in the past, if he had been born in another country, maybe at another time, another race, he would've been king or president, prime minister or something. He was a wonderful human being. On one occasion, he said during one of those meetings, he said, "if you can't say something good about somebody, don't say anything. Just don't say anything." And he would say in those meetings, "brothers, let's stay together, brethren."
BOND: I know when one of those meetings and I only know the vaguest thing about this, there was objection to Bayard Rustin playing a prominent role because he was homosexual, had been a communist and was a radical pacifist. Do you remember this?
LEWIS: Oh, I remember that meeting very very well. That was one of the first meetings. I can tell you that meeting was held on July 2nd, 1963 at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City and it was the six of us meeting and Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young objected to the whole idea of being Bayard Rustin being a convener, the chair or the head of the call for the March on Washington and so we had what you'd call I guess a consultation, a little caucus, of Dr. King, James Farmer and myself, and we sort of agreed that we would select A. Philip Randolph as the chair and then let A. Philip Randolph pick this person because some of us didn't have any problem. We didn't have any problem with Bayard Rustin being the chair, but they thought that some members of Congress, especially southern senators, would get on the Senate floor and some of them did much later, get on the floor and denounce the March or denounce Bayard Rustin being associated with it, but we knew that if we selected Mr. Randolph as the convener, Mr. Randolph in turn would select Mr. Rustin as his deputy. It was Bayard Rustin who literally put together the March on Washington for August 28, 1963.
BOND: There's probably no one else who could've carried off such an enormous organizational job as Bayard Rustin.
LEWIS: I don't think we had anyone else available. He was one of a kind. He was so-- So smart, so brilliant. I remember one occasion, Julian, where we were discussing the planning for the March. We were so concerned about everything. He was concerned with things like people having some place to eat and everybody on the stage having a chair and that type of thing and the microphones and people getting in and out, how many buses, how many trains and that type of thing and at one point, he said, "how many toilets?" He said, "we can't have any disorganized pissing in Washington."
BOND: You know, I just read something that he said about Martin Luther King. He said, "King couldn't organize vampires to come to a bloodbath," and I think it may have been because he himself was such a superb organizer and could organize anything.
LEWIS: He was skilled. He could be talking on two and three telephones at the same time, you know, here and there. He was very skillful and he had the ability, the capacity to bring people together.
LEWIS: I remember this young lady named Rachelle Horowitz, who worked like under Bayard. And Rachelle -- you could call her at three o'clock in the morning, and say, "Rachelle, how many buses are coming from New York? How many trains coming out of the South? How many buses coming from Philadelphia? How many planes coming from California?" And she could tell you because Rachelle Horowitz and Bayard Rustin worked so closely together. They put that thing together. We issued the call on July 2nd, and by August 28th, 1963, you know, the media said it was 250,000. I think it was one of the great under-counts of all time. There were many more people.
BOND: Did you expect there'd be that many people when you began these planning sessions?
LEWIS: No. We thought if we got seventy-five or a hundred thousand it would be a success. But that morning of the March on Washington, we came up to Capitol Hill, met with the leadership on the House side and later on the Senate side. And we were leaving the Senate side and we were going down near Constitution Avenue, and we were going to get in cars and be taken to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. We saw a sea of humanity coming from Union Station, from the train station, and we couldn't -- we said, "No, we can't ride, we've got to walk." And the group of people just came and literally just pushed us on and pushed us by the Washington Monument all the way down to the Lincoln Memorial, so we -- really, it was like we were supposed to the leader but there go my people, let me catch up with them. So they were leading us.
BOND: Yes. That happened in the march here this past weekend.
BOND: Let's shift and talk about your leadership philosophy. Do you see a difference between vision, philosophy and style?
LEWIS: Well --
BOND: And how do these work together for you?
LEWIS: For me, you must have a vision. You must have a vision and get others to participate, to share that vision, to become owners or part of that vision. And I think this is in keeping with the Good Book. Without a vision, the people will perish. And if you're going some place -- you know where you're going -- you've got to have the vision and for people to go with you, but you've got to lead them. You've got to be down there with them. But you also need style, since -- it can't always be from the top. Some must be from the bottom up. And you've got to be in tune with the people and you've got to share their leadership. There's got to be shared leadership, I think. So it's all intertwined. It's not one over the other one. I think you need all three.
BOND: And so far as you're concerned and think of yourself, your leadership, your vision, your philosophy, your style, all come together?
LEWIS: Those all come together. My philosophy is very simple, that you're only here for a while and you have to do what you can with others to enhance the dignity of all humankind.
BOND: Now, how, if at all, would that differ from your vision? You described a philosophy. How would that differ from your vision, if it does at all?
LEWIS: No. I think it's almost inseparable. It's all sort of meshed and run together. My style may be -- the style is from time to time you say something or you do something or you confer, you try to bring people around, you try to convince people to share, but it's all together. It would be hard and very difficult for me to separate my vision and my philosophy. It's all interwoven.
BOND: You talk a great deal or I've heard you talk a great deal about the American House. What's the American House?
LEWIS: Yeah. I believe in that concept. I believe that we all live in one house. We all live in one house. So if we all live in one house, we all are one family. The American House is a house at peace with itself, where we care for each other. We don't forget about each other. Like in the past few weeks and past month or so, it seems like we have been saying, "You know, too bad, you're poor, you're a minority, you're just left out and you're left behind." But in the real American House, in that true American House, no one is left out or left behind, that we care about each other, we push and we pull for each other. That is the dream. That is the vision, and -- that we can somehow in some way create a house or build a house where each member of the family can live and be at peace with him or herself.
BOND: You mention the word "dream," and, of course, that reminds everybody so much of Martin Luther King's dream and we're always asking ourselves, particularly on his birthday every year, how close are we to realizing the dream? Now, here, so many years after his death in '68, where are we now?
LEWIS: We have come a distance. We've made some progress. But I think we're still a tremendous distance from making the dream of Dr. King a reality. We have ended, for the most part, what I would call official or legal segregation and discrimination, but in actuality, the gap, the disparity, is still -- is so wide, the gulf is so deep, and I think what happened on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi in recent days tended to dramatize and make it so clear that we still have a great distance to go. But it comes to people having the necessities of life, just the basics.
BOND: What does it take for us to realize the dream? It's been a preoccupation of some Americans for many, many years and many, many Americans have spent a lot of time and energy, yourself included, working on this. What does it take to move us further?
LEWIS: Well, I think we have the resources, but I'm not so sure from time to time whether those of us at the highest level of our national government have the will to make those resources available. You know, many years ago, many many years ago, A. Philip Randolph and Dr. King and others talked about a Freedom Budget, and you're talking about billions of dollars to make whole the lives of people. And now we're talking about $250 to $300 billion to rebuild a part of America. You're talking about infrastructure but also to help rebuild the lives of people.
Maybe -- maybe years ago, if we had done some of the things that Dr. King and A. Philip Randolph and others of those called on us to do, during the mid '60s and the late '60s, we would be so much further down that road or up that road. It's New Orleans now, but New Orleans is a reflection of almost every urban center in America. There're just people that have been left out and left behind.
BOND: Let me shift gears one more time. When you think about making leaders, most think there are three ways leaders are made. Sometimes great people cause great events, and leaders emerge. Sometimes movements make leaders. Or sometimes unpredictable events create leaders appropriate for the times. Do you think any one of these is superior over the others?
LEWIS: Well, knowing -- and in terms of the movement, when you see someone emerge from a movement, from a cause -- in my estimation, I think is perhaps much more authentic, much more real than someone emerging out of a struggle. You know, whether it was seeing someone in Poland or in South Africa. That's a great cause. Someone sort of emerging from the people. And then sometimes events come along where there's something like 9/11 or whether it's something like the Great Depression or whether it's someone emerging out of a great national natural disaster and sometimes people are elected and they respond to the situation, but I like to think when someone emerges out of a call, sort of a movement, to me, it's more real and more authentic to see the young people, whether they're in China or the young people in South Africa or a labor leader in Poland.
BOND: Do you think that your ability as a leader comes out of your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or is it your ability to articulate the agenda that has to be followed? Is it you convincing people to follow your vision or is it your ability to say, "Here's the agenda, let's follow that"?
LEWIS: I think it's some of both. I think part of it is my ability to persuade people and sometimes I'm pretty good at persuading people, but -- you know, growing up, I became very involved in caring for chickens and I learned to do by just raising these chickens and preaching to these chickens and encouraging these chickens to do things.
BOND: I know your brothers and sisters didn't care for these chickens.
LEWIS: They didn't care for them, but I took care of them. I raised them. And I think some of the same techniques and tactics that I used with those chickens during the early years, I've used with some of my colleagues and friends today.
BOND: Now, you used to preach to those chickens.
LEWIS: And some of them were very responsive. Some of them would bow their heads. Some would shake their heads. They never quite said, "Amen." Some of them tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues listened to me.
BOND: Are there times when you wish your colleagues were chickens?
BOND: The vision you have, does it grow out of your religious faith, and if it does, how as a member of Congress are you able to use that vision coming from that faith to persuade others to follow the path that you think ought to be followed?
LEWIS: Well, my vision is -- like my involvement in the movement during the '60s -- is an extension of my religious conviction, of my faith. And I don't have to go around wearing my faith on my sleeve and saying, "I'm this, I believe this and I believe that." But if you believe in the idea of a Beloved Community, of a good society, of a society at peace with itself, where there's justice and fairness, I don't have a problem in saying to those in high places and government, to my colleagues, that this is where we must go. We must end hunger. We must end poverty. We must see that all of our children get the best possible education, that everybody should have health care. It's very much in keeping with the teaching of my faith, so it's not a contradiction.
BOND: No, but I'm sure many of your colleagues would argue they are just as religious as you are, that they believe deeply as you do, yet they believe this and you believe that. How do you balance this contradiction?
LEWIS: Well, I will say to them, "If you believe that, if you're really going to be true to your faith, you've got to sit up and be prepared to vote this way." And I'll whip people from time to time and I say, "How can you believe that? How can you believe? How can you believe in capital punishment? How can you believe in putting someone to death? How can you believe in supporting and voting for another piece of legislation that calls for the death penalty? How can you do that when you say you believe in the dignity of all human beings?" And I say, "We don't have a right -- we haven't been called to sit in judgment on another human being. That should be left for the Almighty and not for us." But you -- if you believe in something, then you have to show some sign. You have to continue to preach it and be an advocate for it.
BOND: What if I say I believe in the Almighty and I believe His word, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. That says to me that if you take a life, I'm going to take yours.
LEWIS: Then I say, well, that was another period and then there was a later period when the Great Teacher said, "Love. The way is love." You have the Old Testament and you have the New Testament and in the New Testament, you talk about love. Love your enemy. It is better to love than to hate. You want to create a society of peace with itself. You don't want to kill people. You don't want to be involved in conflict, in wars. You don't want to spread more violence.
BOND: But, again, there're people who would argue and say there're times when you have to meet violence with violence. Germany attacks its neighbors, threatens to attack us, so we've got to attack them. Osama bin Laden bombs New York City and Washington. We've got to answer in kind.
LEWIS: There comes a time when we must agree not just with the teaching of the Great Teacher, call him Jesus, call him the Spirit of History, or call him what you may, but you also must agree with Gandhi that it's non-violence or non-existence. And then Martin Luther King, Jr., put it another way -- "We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we will perish as fools." Some place along the way as people of faith and as elected officials or politicians, we have to have the courage to say that we're going to lay down the tools and instruments of war and violence instead of war no more. And is it possible? Is it possible? We have to raise that question. In the theological sense, in a philosophical or political sense, can humankind emerge to a level where we say, "No more violence"?
BOND: And you believe we can?
LEWIS: I think we can. We have to. For the sake of humanity, we have to. It's good in itself. It's good in itself to do away. How can we teach our children and generations yet unborn? How can we spread the news of peace and love when we continue to engage in acts of violence and intolerance?
BOND: Have there been times in your life when you've questioned this belief, this philosophy, and you've said, "John Lewis, maybe you're not right on this? Maybe I have some doubts about it?" Have there been times like this?
LEWIS: No. Since the early days of 1960, I don't think I ever questioned the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence.
BOND: You mentioned the Freedom Rides before as a turning point. And the Freedom Rides are '61, but yet now you're saying '60. What is that happened either in '61 on the Freedom Rides or earlier in 1960 when the sit-in movement explodes? What is it about this period that confirms this belief?
LEWIS: Well, the '60s changed my life forever and gave me a sense of direction, a sense of purpose, gave me something to hold onto, something to believe in. It made me committed to the discipline and to the philosophy of non-violence, to this concept of the Beloved Community, that love is stronger, more powerful than hate, that non-violence is a much better way, a more excellent way than the way of violence. So on the Freedom Rides, I thought I was going to die. But if I had died, Dr. King probably would've said it was better to die a physical death than to die a psychological or a spiritual death.
On the march from Selma to Montgomery, when I was beaten at the foot of that Pettus Bridge, I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die. I thought it was the last protest for me. But it's -- I don't regret standing there, taking the blows, giving a little blood. In the process, I'm a better human being. I'm more committed to the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence now than ever before.
BOND: Let me shift gears one more time. How does race consciousness -- consciousness that you are what we call in this country a black American -- how does that affect the work that you've done all your life?
LEWIS: Well, I think race has affected me, but a lot of time, I don't think about it. I just do it. I guess that's the old slogan -- just do it. You just get out there and you get in the way, and I just -- you see something that is so right and so good and so necessary, you want to be part of it. And you see something that is so wrong and you just want to do what you can to try to make it right. And you, in a sense, forget about race and just get out there. But -- I hate discrimination. I hate hate. It'll destroy all of us, really. And you have to find a way to combat putting people down because of their race or their color.
BOND: Well, as you go about your work, do you see yourself as making advances for society or making advances for the race, or are they the same thing? Can they be the same thing? Are they always the same thing?
LEWIS: I see myself as making advances and making progress for the society, and in the process, I'm helping everybody, the total society. It doesn't matter whether people are black or white or Hispanic or Asian American or Native American. I want to help and advance the cause of everybody, that we all move together and that comes back to this idea of one house, one family. We all live in the same house. We're one family, the American family, the American House, the world house, or the world family.
BOND: Do you think that you have a different style when you're addressing a black audience or a white audience? Are you a different person in either of these places?
LEWIS: Well, according to the situation, the environment -- if I'm speaking in -- let's say, a black, predominantly black audience, a church, or at a conference, I may use some different method. I may use some of my preaching style or technique. I may call upon some of my past. And if I'm speaking to an interracial audience, it may be a different style, but you sort of -- you sort of read the audience and you also get feedback from the audience. Sometimes the audience takes you along.
LEWIS: And I've been carried along from time to time.
BOND: I see. Now, if you talk about black leadership, is it possible that we're dividing ourselves just by calling -- "You're a black leader." What does that? What are we saying there? Does that divide you from other leadership figures? Or does it just describe you?
LEWIS: Well, I think I'm a participant in a struggle in America. I happen to be black and I cannot deny that, but I see myself as being part of the American whole addressing the needs and the problems of all Americans.
BOND: So, you -- is it fair to say you see yourself transcending race? Larger, greater than race?
LEWIS: I see myself part of an effort much larger than any ethnic group.
BOND: Do you think that because you are a black person, that you have a special responsibility to black people?
LEWIS: I think I have an obligation, and in so many situations, a special obligation, a special responsibility, to the black community. That's the community I come from. But I also have an obligation and responsibility to a much larger community.
BOND: How do you tell the difference between your responsibilities to the people you come from end -- if they end -- and the responsibilities to the larger community takes hold?
LEWIS: Well, in some instances, there's issues and questions that are peculiar to the African American community. In other instances, there're issues that I need to champion and should champion that transcend the African American community but also is good for the African American community but good for the larger society.
BOND: Now, when you look back over your career, is there something that you think was the greatest contribution that you made?
LEWIS: When I look back and take a look back, I think my involvement in the civil rights movement was one of my great accomplishments, the fact that someone can grow up like I grew up and come under the influence of Jim Lawson and some of my colleagues in school like James Bevel and Bernard Lafayette and Diane Nash and Kelly Miller Smith, but also come under the influence of Dr. King and I feel more than lucky, but I feel very blessed to get to know individuals, get to know individuals like you and others have made me a different person, a better person, and have forced me to dig deep, but I grew up very very shy as a child. As a child, as I said, they would accuse me from time to time of being nosy. I was inquisitive. I wanted to know and I soaked all of that stuff in and I use it.
BOND: Have you ever thought, and I've thought this, too, because I agreed that that period in the early 1960s was the best time of my life, the friends, the companions, just I'll never repeat that again, but both of us are saying that the best thing for us happened when we were 20, 25 years old and the years from then till now have not been as great or not been as encompassing and may never be. Is that kind of a disappointment?
LEWIS: Well, I think to some degree it is somewhat disappointing to me that at a very early age in a young stage in your life that you can have these unbelievable mountaintop experiences you can go through. You see all of the change. I was talking with someone the other day, an interview. I believe you have been interviewed by this group doing the biography of Harry Belafonte. Now, talk about our trip to Africa. The time that we spent there, it was very-- In 1964, but in 1963, the summer of 1963, the March on Washington; '64, the Mississippi Summer Project; '65, Selma. These were mountaintop experiences and they won?t come along again. They're so gratifying and so uplifting and you have things happen and from time to time today, but you can?t compare. It's no way to compare going into the Oval Office, meeting with President Kennedy, looking him straight in the eye in 1963 at the age of 23.
BOND: But, sure, you've met many presidents since then.
LEWIS: It was not like being there. Today, it's-- Too much is this and that. It's almost artificial, almost pro forma, but we were meeting for something. It was a cause. There was great social upheaval in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama and all across the south.
BOND: There's a tape recording of Kennedy in the White House talking about SNCC and he says, "those SNCC people, they're sons of bitches, aren't they?"
LEWIS: Yes, and when I hear about that, I'm surprised that he felt that way.
BOND: I think he said it lovingly.
LEWIS: Maybe non-violently.
BOND: Yes, yes.
BOND: Do you think there's a crisis in black leadership? What do you think the state of black leadership is today?
LEWIS: Black leadership today is altogether different from black leadership a few years ago.
BOND: More numerous to be -- ?
LEWIS: Well, and much more dispersed. You could count probably on a few fingers the sense of the leadership. It was -- today, you have all of these elected officials, but you have heads of many different organizations and groups. Some of that is good and maybe all of it is good -- and you have more indigenous leadership -- but in 1962, '63, '64, '65, you had a greater sense of solidarity, and maybe part of it because of segregation and racial discrimination. It didn't matter whether you lived in New York or in Washington or in Atlanta or in Jackson, Mississippi or Montgomery, Alabama, the same thing you could do and you couldn't do.
As Dr. King would say, it didn't matter whether you had a Ph.D. degree or no degree, you were all in the same boat and I think there's a feeling on the part of some black leaders today that they feel like they're in a different boat. And maybe they are. You just don't have the sense of solidarity. When we met in 1963, the so-called Big Six, and we spoke almost with one voice. We don't have that today. And maybe it's too much to hope for that that day will come again.
BOND: Well, let's hope it comes again.
BOND: A couple of questions about the future -- tomorrow, in the future, what kind of leaders does our society demand that we have in the future? How are they different, if any way, from today's or yesterday's leaders? You talked about that one voice that we don't have today. What about tomorrow?
LEWIS: I think in years to come, the society will need and will be demanding leaders with courage -- raw courage. People that are prepared to stand up and do what I call "get in the way." I think today too many people are too reluctant to get in the way. They're almost afraid to be daring. And we need people who're willing and prepared to be daring.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was daring. When he spoke on April 4th, 1967, at the Riverside Church in New York City condemning the war in Vietnam, that was a daring statement. He challenged the government -- his own government -- challenged the leadership of his own country to get on the right side of history. Very few people today are prepared.
So, we need leaders who will be willing to challenge, if they have to go it alone, be willing to get in the way. The young people in SNCC during the '60s were willing and prepared to get in the way. Said, "We're going to Mississippi, we're going to southwest Georgia, we're going to Selma, Alabama." I'm not so sure that we have people today who're prepared to take risks, and if we're going to have bold and creative leadership tomorrow and years to come, we must be prepared to take risks, to challenge the order of things, to get out of the box. And I must tell you, we didn't have what a lot of people have today and what people will have tomorrow. The technology and the new leadership should be bold, creative, daring.
BOND: What can we do to make sure we have that kind of leadership? Can we prepare for it? Can we prepare young people for it? What can we do to make sure that when tomorrow comes, that we'll have that kind of bold leadership?
LEWIS: I think we can help. We can help educate, sensitize. People should study the literature of the '60s. They should watch film footage, the video. They should watch some of those films -- "The Anatomy of a City" and "The Nashville Sit-in Story." And at the same time, they've got to be creative, but they should learn from the past and take lessons from those of us who passed this way during a much earlier period.
BOND: You know, I've often heard it said that one fault of your generation and mine is that we didn't prepare a younger generation for the future, but I'm not sure the generation before us prepared us in that way. I think they broke down walls that made it possible for us to move forward, but I don't think our elders were saying, "Come on, it's your turn now." In fact, they were saying, "No, it's not your turn, it's still my turn."
LEWIS: No, I think you're right. I don't think anyone sort of taught us and said, "You're going to be a leader, this is what you must do. These are the one, two, threes, the ABCs." I think in spite of it all, because we had the sense, we were very impatient and part of our challenge against segregation and racial discrimination, we've also challenged the old leadership -- the old guard. And we didn't ask someone or beg of someone to pass the torch to us. We just got out there --
BOND: And grabbed the torch.
LEWIS: We did it. And that's what the next and future generation of leaders must do. Just get out there and go for it.
BOND: I think I know the answer to this question just by looking at your life. Are you optimistic about this?
LEWIS: I'm very optimistic. I'm very, very hopeful. It's very much in keeping with the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence to be hopeful, to be optimistic that things are going to get better, but they're going to need some push and some pull and people have to make a little noise. I think now people are just too quiet. They're a little too patient. They have to make a little noise. They have to get in the way. And they have to find a way -- and I really truly believe you have to get in the way. It may not be popular at the time to get in the way. It may not be the acceptable thing to do. You may be sailing against the wind, but you have to do it. You have to disturb the order of things.
BOND: John Lewis, thank you for being with us.
LEWIS: Well, thank you, my friend, Julian Bond. Thank you very much.
BOND: Well, thank you.