Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Getting Out Front: Early Leadership Events

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.