Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Greatest Contribution: the Civil Rights Movement

BOND: Now, when you look back over your career, is there something that you think was the greatest contribution that you made?

LEWIS: When I look back and take a look back, I think my involvement in the civil rights movement was one of my great accomplishments, the fact that someone can grow up like I grew up and come under the influence of Jim Lawson and some of my colleagues in school like James Bevel and Bernard Lafayette and Diane Nash and Kelly Miller Smith, but also come under the influence of Dr. King and I feel more than lucky, but I feel very blessed to get to know individuals, get to know individuals like you and others have made me a different person, a better person, and have forced me to dig deep, but I grew up very very shy as a child. As a child, as I said, they would accuse me from time to time of being nosy. I was inquisitive. I wanted to know and I soaked all of that stuff in and I use it.

BOND: Have you ever thought, and I've thought this, too, because I agreed that that period in the early 1960s was the best time of my life, the friends, the companions, just I'll never repeat that again, but both of us are saying that the best thing for us happened when we were 20, 25 years old and the years from then till now have not been as great or not been as encompassing and may never be. Is that kind of a disappointment?

LEWIS: Well, I think to some degree it is somewhat disappointing to me that at a very early age in a young stage in your life that you can have these unbelievable mountaintop experiences you can go through. You see all of the change. I was talking with someone the other day, an interview. I believe you have been interviewed by this group doing the biography of Harry Belafonte. Now, talk about our trip to Africa. The time that we spent there, it was very-- In 1964, but in 1963, the summer of 1963, the March on Washington; '64, the Mississippi Summer Project; '65, Selma. These were mountaintop experiences and they won?t come along again. They're so gratifying and so uplifting and you have things happen and from time to time today, but you can?t compare. It's no way to compare going into the Oval Office, meeting with President Kennedy, looking him straight in the eye in 1963 at the age of 23.

BOND: But, sure, you've met many presidents since then.

LEWIS: It was not like being there. Today, it's-- Too much is this and that. It's almost artificial, almost pro forma, but we were meeting for something. It was a cause. There was great social upheaval in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama and all across the south.

BOND: There's a tape recording of Kennedy in the White House talking about SNCC and he says, "those SNCC people, they're sons of bitches, aren't they?"

LEWIS: Yes, and when I hear about that, I'm surprised that he felt that way.

BOND: I think he said it lovingly.

LEWIS: Maybe non-violently.

BOND: Yes, yes.