Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Answering a Call to Social Activism

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.