Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Learning to Disturb Things

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.