Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Reflections on Brown

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.