Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Meeting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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.