We spend the hour looking at the bloody struggle to obtain — and protect — voting rights in the U.S. with the civil rights icon, now 13-term Georgia congressmember, John Lewis. During the 1960s, Rep. Lewis was arrested more than 40 times and beaten almost to death as he served as chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, marched side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., helped organize the Freedom Rides, campaigned for Robert Kennedy’s presidential bid, and spoke at the 1963 March on Washington. He has just written a new memoir looking back on his more than 50 years of political involvement, “Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change.”
Having risked his life marching for the right of all Americans to vote, Lewis reflects on the ongoing struggle for voting rights today, when 16 states have passed restrictive voting laws that critics say target people of color. “It is so important for people to understand, to know that people suffered, struggled,” Lewis says. “Some people bled, and some died, for the right to participate. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool that we have in a democratic society. It’s precious. It’s almost sacred. We have to use it. If not, we will lose it.”
Rep. John Lewis, 13-term Democratic congressman from Georgia. He was a leader of the civil rights movement, served as chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, helped organize the Freedom Rides, and spoke at the 1963 March on Washington. He is author of the new book, Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change.
Amy Goodman: We spend today’s hour looking at the bloody struggle to obtain—and protect—voting rights in this country. Since 2010, at least 10 states have passed laws that require people to show a government-issued photo ID when they go to the polls. While supporters say the laws protect against voter fraud, others argue they’re more likely to suppress voter turnout among people of color, the poor and the elderly, who may lack the proper ID and find it harder to obtain one. In total, 16 states have passed restrictive voting laws that could shape the 2012 election, including the vital swing states of Florida and Pennsylvania.
Well, on Monday, NAACP president and CEO Ben Jealous made voting rights the center of his address to the group’s annual convention in Houston.
Benjamin Jealous: We have a choice to make. We can allow this election, Jerry Mondesire, to be stolen in advance, as a politician from Pennsylvania recently bragged about when he thought no one was listening, talking about his state’s voter ID law, or we can double down on democracy and overcome the rising tide of voter suppression with a higher tide of voter registration and mobilization and activation and protection.
Amy Goodman: Well, today we’re joined by a leader of the civil rights movement who risked his life numerous times marching for the right of all Americans to vote: 13-term Democratic Congressmember John Lewis of Georgia. He was a leader of the civil rights movement who marched side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King. He served as chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, helped organize the Freedom Rides and spoke at the 1963 March on Washington. He has been arrested more than 40 times and has just written a new book called Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change.
He visited us in our studio, and I asked Congressmember Lewis about the voter purge in Florida, where the Justice Department had sued to block Republican Governor Rick Scott’s controversial effort to remove thousands of registered voters from the rolls, using an outdated drivers’ license database to ostensibly identify non-citizens registered to vote.
Rep. John Lewis: It is unreal, it is unbelievable, that at this time in our history, 47 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed and signed into law, that we’re trying to go backward. I think there is a systematic, deliberate attempt on the part of so many of these states—not just Florida, but it’s all across the country, it’s not just Southern states—to keep people from participating. I think there is an attempt to steal this election before it even takes place, to make it hard, to make it difficult for our seniors, for our students, for minorities, for the disabled to participate in the democratic process. It’s not right, it’s not fair, and it’s not just.
Amy Goodman: Why do these voter purges actually target the groups you’ve just talked about? How do they target them? Maybe you can explain what you were so pivotal in having passed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965?
Rep. John Lewis: Well, I think there’s this make-believe that if we do not purge, if we do not weed out some of these people, they’re going to come out and vote, and they’re going to vote not the way that some people would like for them to vote. They’re primarily Democratic voters. It makes me want to just cry, after people gave a little blood, after some people were beaten, shot and murdered trying to help people become registered voters. I can never forget the three civil rights workers that were murdered in the state of Mississippi on the night of June 21st, 1964; other people shot down in cold blood; the march from Selma to Montgomery, where 17 of us were seriously injured. And we passed the Voting Rights Act. We renewed the act. We extended the act. And then the state of Florida, the state of Georgia, Alabama and other states throughout the nation come along with tactics to make it hard, to make it difficult for people to participate. We should be making it easy and simple and open up the political process and let all of the people come in.
Amy Goodman: Explain what the Voting Rights Act said.
Rep. John Lewis: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 said, in effect, that you cannot use a literary test, you cannot have a poll tax, you cannot use certain devices, you cannot harass, you cannot intimidate. And before you make any changes in election laws dealing with registration, changing a precinct, local lines for any political position, you have to get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice or the federal district court in Washington, D.C. So, the state of Florida, for an example, never sought to get clearance to purge. And they’re hiding behind there may be fraud. That’s their own.
Amy Goodman: You were on that Selma to Montgomery march. You had your head bashed in for this. Can you explain what happened, as we go back, what, almost half a century now?
Rep. John Lewis: On March 7, 1965, a group of us attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to dramatize to the nation that people wanted to register to vote. One young African-American man had been shot and killed a few days earlier, in an adjoining county called Perry County—this is in the Black Belt of Alabama—the home county of Mrs. Martin Luther King Jr., the home county of Mrs. Ralph Abernathy, the home county of Mrs. Andrew Young. And because of what happened to him, we made a decision to march.
In Selma, Alabama, in 1965, only 2.1 percent of blacks of voting age were registered to vote. The only place you could attempt to register was to go down to the courthouse. You had to pass a so-called literacy test. And they would tell people over and over again that they didn’t or couldn’t pass the literacy test. On one occasion, a man was asked to count the number of bubbles on a bar of soap. On another occasion, a man was asked to count the number of jellybeans in a jar. There were African-American lawyers, doctors, teachers, housewives, college professors flunking this so-called literacy test. And we had to change that, so we sought to march.
And we got to the top of the bridge. We saw a sea of blue—Alabama state troopers—and we continued to walk. We came within hearing distance of the state troopers. And a man identified himself and said, “I’m Major John Cloud of the Alabama state troopers. This is an unlawful march. It will not be allowed to continue. I give you three minutes to disperse and return to your church.” And one of the young people walking with me, leading the march, a man by the name of Hosea Williams, who was on the staff of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said, “Major, give us a moment to kneel and pray.” And the major said, “Troopers, advance!” And you saw these guys putting on their gas masks. They came toward us, beating us with nightsticks and bullwhips, trampling us with horses.
I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. I had a concussion at the bridge. My legs went out from under me. I felt like I was going to die. I thought I saw Death. All these many years later, I don’t recall how I made it back across that bridge to the church. But after I got back to the church, the church was full to capacity, more than 2,000 people on the outside trying to get in to protest what had happened on the bridge. And someone asked me to say something to the audience. And I stood up and said something like: “I don’t understand it, how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam but cannot send troops to Selma, Alabama, to protect people whose only desire is to register to vote.” The next thing I knew, I had been admitted to the local hospital in Selma.
Amy Goodman: Explain that moment where you decided to move forward, because I don’t think the history we learn records those small acts that are actually gargantuan acts of bravery. Talk about—I mean, you saw the weapons the police arrayed against you. What propelled you forward, Congressmember Lewis?
Rep. John Lewis: Well, my mother, my father, my grandparents, my uncles and aunts, and people all around me had never registered to vote. I had been working all across the South. The state of Mississippi had a black voting age population of more than 450,000, and only about 16,000 were registered to vote. On that day, we didn’t have a choice. I think we had been tracked down by what I call the spirit of history, and we couldn’t—we couldn’t turn back. We had to go forward. We became like trees planted by the rivers of water. We were anchored. And I thought we would die. I first thought we would be arrested and go to jail, but I thought it was a real possibility that some of us would die on that bridge that day, after the confrontation occurred. I thought it was the last protest for me. But somehow and someway, you have to keep going. You go to a hospital, you go to a doctor’s office, you get mended, and you get up and try it again.
Amy Goodman: So what was the next act you engaged in?
Rep. John Lewis: Well, we continued to organize, continued to try to get people registered. We went to federal court, testified, to get an injunction against Governor George Wallace and the Alabama state troopers. And the federal court said that we had a right to march from Selma to Montgomery. President Johnson spoke to the nation and condemned the violence in Selma, introduced the Voting Rights Act. And that night, he made one of the most meaningful speeches that any American president had made in modern times on the whole question of civil rights and voting rights. He condemned the violence over and over again, and near the end of the speech he said, “And we shall overcome. We shall overcome.” We call it the “We Shall Overcome” speech.
I was sitting next to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as we listened to President Johnson. I looked at Dr. King. Tears came down his face. He started crying. And we all cried a little when we heard the president saying, “We shall overcome.” And Dr. King said, “We will make it from Selma to Montgomery, and the Voting Rights Act will be passed.” Two weeks later, more than 10,000 of us, people from all over America, started walking from Selma to Montgomery. And by the time we made it to Montgomery five days later, there were almost 30,000 black and white citizens—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, men, women, young people. It was like a holy march. And the Congress debated the act, passed it, and on August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law.
Amy Goodman: Congressmember John Lewis. We continue our conversation after break.
Amy Goodman: The Morehouse College Glee Club performing “We Shall Overcome.” Morehouse College was the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as I continue with my interview with Democratic Congressmember John Lewis of Georgia, leader of the civil rights movement, risked his life numerous times marching for the right of all Americans to vote. During the civil rights movement, he marched side by side with Dr. King. He served as chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, helped organize the Freedom Rides, spoke at the 1963 March on Washington. Congressmember Lewis was also a leader of the now-famous voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
On July 6, 1964, he led 50 African Americans to the courthouse in Selma, Alabama, on voter registration day, but Sheriff Jim Clark arrested them rather than allow them to apply to vote. I played for Congressman Lewis a clip of his close friend and ally, Martin Luther King Jr., speaking in 1965 about Jim Clark.
REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: I am here to tell you tonight that the businessmen, the mayor of this city, the police commissioner of this city, and everybody in the white power structure of this city must take a responsibility for everything that Jim Clark does in this community. It’s time for us to say to these men, that if you don’t do something about it, we will have no alternative but to engage in broader and more drastic forms of civil disobedience in order to bring the attention of the nation to this whole issue in Selma, Alabama.
Amy Goodman: Dr. Martin Luther King. You were in the church, John Lewis.
Rep. John Lewis: It was an unbelievable speech. Dr. King spoke out of his gut. Sheriff Clark was a very mean man. He was vicious. I think maybe he was a little sick. He wore a gun on one side, a nightstick on the other side. He carried an electric cow prodder in his hand—and he didn’t use it on cows. When young—
Amy Goodman: An electric cow prodder.
Rep. John Lewis: That you use to move cattle along. And I remember on one occasion he was wearing a button on his left lapel that said “Never.” He thought he was a general in a military. He would wear a helmet like Patton. He forced a group of young children on a false march, which was so cruel, so vicious and so evil. He took them down a highway and said, “If you want to march…” And he had people just chase these little children on horseback. I saw him one day when a group of black women were trying to march, primarily black schoolteachers, that he literally put his foot on the neck of a black woman. We were peaceful. We were orderly. We believed in the philosophy, in the discipline of nonviolence. We were trying to appeal to the conscience of everybody.
Amy Goodman: Well, you somehow reached the conscience of the KKK man who beat you. I wanted to get your response. Almost a half a century has passed since the now ex-Klansman Elwin Wilson hit you at a lunch counter in a South Carolina bus station. After years of regret, Elwin finally apologized to you in 2009. He has spoken out against bigotry and intolerance. I want to go to a clip of him speaking on The Oprah Winfrey Show about what happened the day he attacked you.
Oprah Winfrey: Were you a member of the Ku Klux Klan?
Elwin Wilson: Oh, yeah.
Oprah Winfrey: You were.
Elwin Wilson: Mm-hmm.
Oprah Winfrey: Was he the only person you beat up that day?
Elwin Wilson: No.
Oprah Winfrey: No.
Elwin Wilson: After he was beat and bloody and all, he—policeman came up and asked him, said, “Do you all want to take out a warrant?”
Oprah Winfrey: Press charges.
Elwin Wilson: Right.
Oprah Winfrey: Yeah.
Elwin Wilson: Make charge. He said, “No.” Said, “We’re not here to cause trouble.”
Amy Goodman: That was Elwin apologizing to you, the ex-Klansman. Describe what he did to you during the Freedom Rides, and tell us what they were.
Rep. John Lewis: On May 9th, 1961, my seat mate, a young white gentleman, we arrived at the Greyhound bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina. We got off the bus.
Amy Goodman: What were you doing there?
Rep. John Lewis: We were testing the facilities—the lunch counters, the waiting room, the restroom facility. During those days, the stations were marked “white waiting,” “colored waiting,” “white men,” “colored men,” “white women,” “colored women.” And we were following a decision of the United States Supreme Court banning discrimination—or segregation in intrastate travel. And when we started to enter the so-called white waiting room, we were attacked by a group of young white men, beaten and left in a pool of blood. The local police officials came up and wanted to know whether we wanted to press charges. We said, “No, we believe in peace. We believe in love and nonviolence.”
Years later—to be exact, 48 years later—Mr. Wilson and his son came to my office in Washington and said, “Mr. Lewis, I’m one of the people that beat you. Will you forgive me? I apologize.” His son had been encouraging his father to do this. His son started crying. Mr. Wilson started crying. He hugged me. His son hugged me. I hugged them both back. Then all three of us stood there crying. That’s what the movement was about, to be reconciled.
Amy Goodman: When we hear about voting rights today, we don’t hear about these struggles that you and so many others that you led went through 50 years ago.
Rep. John Lewis: That’s why it is so important for people to understand, to know that people suffered, struggled. Some people bled, and some died, for the right to participate. You know, the vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool that we have in a democratic society. It’s precious. It’s almost sacred. We have to use it. If not, we will lose it.
Amy Goodman: A few years after that, two years after you had your head slammed in and so many others were beaten in Montgomery, was the 1963 March on Washington. Dr. King spoke, and you also spoke. I want to go to a clip of that moment, August 28th, 1963.
John Lewis: To those who have said, “Be patient and wait,” we must say that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now. We are tired. We are tired of being beat by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again, and then you holler, “Be patient.” How long can we be patient? We want our freedom, and we want it now.
We do not want to go to jail, but we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood and true peace. I appeal to all of you to get in this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation, until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete. We must get in this revolution and complete the revolution, for in the Delta of Mississippi, in Southwest Georgia, in the Black Belt of Alabama, in Harlem, in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and all over this nation, the black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom.
They’re talking about slow down and stop. We will not stop. All of the forces of Eastland, Barnett, Wallace, and Thurmond will not stop this revolution. If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our march into Washington. We will march through the South, through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham. But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today.
By the forces of our demands, our determination and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces, put them together in the image of God and democracy. We must say, “Wake up, America! Wake up!” for we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.
Amy Goodman: That remarkable speech that you gave on August 28th, 1963. You were the youngest speaker at the March on Washington. You spoke before Dr. King.
Rep. John Lewis: I spoke number six. Dr. King was the last speaker. He spoke number 10. That day, when A. Philip Randolph introduced me, and he said, “And I present to you, young John Lewis, national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee,” I looked to my right, I saw many other young people sort of cheering me on; looked to my left, and I saw young people up in the trees trying to get a better view of the crowd; then I looked straight ahead, and I said to myself, “This is it. I must do my best.” And that’s what I tried to do.
When I was working on the speech, I was reading a copy of the New York Times, and I saw a group of black women in southern Africa carrying signs saying, “One Man, One Vote.” So in my March on Washington speech, I said, “‘One man, one vote’ is the African cry; it is ours, too. It must be ours.” And that became the rallying cry for many other young people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Amy Goodman: And yet, you had to change that speech that you gave on that day.
Rep. John Lewis: I was asked to change the speech. Some people thought the speech was too radical, too militant. I thought it was a speech for the occasion. It represented the people that we were working with. Some people didn’t like the use of the word “revolution” or the use of the phrase “black masses.” A. Philip Randolph came to my rescue and said, “There’s not anything wrong with the use of ‘revolution.’ I use it myself sometimes. There’s not anything with ‘black masses.'” So we kept that part in the speech. But near the end of the speech, I said something like, “If we do not see meaningful progress here today, the day may come when we will be forced to march through the South the way Sherman did—nonviolently.” And people thought we couldn’t make a reference to Sherman, and so we deleted that.
Amy Goodman: The text that I have exactly: “The next time we march, we won’t march on Washington, but will march through the South, through the Heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own ‘scorched earth’ policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground—nonviolently.” Why did you give in?
Rep. John Lewis: One of the reasons, A. Philip Randolph, this wonderful man, this prince of a man, had always dreamed of a march on Washington. You couldn’t say no to A. Philip Randolph. And then you had Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saying to me, “John, this doesn’t sound like you.” I love those two men. Dr. King was my hero, my inspiration. And for the sake of unity, I made a decision to change the speech, to delete some of those words.
Amy Goodman: You also asked, “I want to know: which side is the federal government on?”
Rep. John Lewis: I did ask the question. I did raise the question, “I want to know: which side is the federal government on?” because it appeared, in certain parts of the South, the federal government was not on the right side of history. It appeared that the federal government was not a sympathetic referee in the struggle for civil rights. We felt that the federal government could do more, the Department of Justice could do more, the FBI could do more, than just stand back and take pictures. We thought they could prevent some of the violence and protect people that were being arrested, being beaten and being killed.
Amy Goodman: I’d like to play Danny Glover reading the excerpts of the speech that you didn’t give.
Danny Glover: “To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we must say that ‘patience’ is a dirty and nasty word. We cannot be patient. We do not want to be free gradually. We want our freedom, and we want it now. We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence. …
“We won’t stop now. All of the forces of Eastland, Barnett, Wallace and Thurmond won’t stop the revolution. The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South, through the Heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own ‘scorched earth’ policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground!”
Amy Goodman: John Lewis, you also said a part that didn’t get included was: “In good conscience, we cannot support the administration’s civil rights bill, for it’s too little, too late. There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality.”
Rep. John Lewis: I thought, and I believe, that the proposed civil rights bill was not enough. President Kennedy took the position that if a person had a sixth grade education, that person should be considered literate and should able to register to vote. Those of us in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee took the position that the only qualification for being able to register to vote in America should be that of age and residency, nothing more or anything less. We wanted a much stronger bill.
But the whole idea of the march was not to support a particular piece of legislation. It was a march for jobs and freedom. It was a coalition of conscience to say to the Congress and say to the president of the United States, “You must act.” We didn’t think that the proposed bill was commensurate to all of the suffering, to the beatings, to the jailing, to the killing that had occurred in the South.
Amy Goodman: Congressman John Lewis. He’s just written a new book called Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change. I’ll continue the interview with him in a moment.
Amy Goodman: “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round,” the SNCC Freedom Singers, a group that traveled the country singing and fundraising for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Congressmember John Lewis was one of the chairs of SNCC. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we return to my interview with the now 13-term Democratic congressman, John Lewis of Georgia, arrested more than 40 times as he fought for voting rights and against segregation in America. Just before Malcolm X was assassinated, John Lewis met with him in Africa. They spent several days together. I asked John Lewis where they met, what they talked about.
Rep. John Lewis: We met Malcolm in Nairobi, Kenya, at the New Stanley Hotel. He happened to be staying there—we didn’t know he was staying there—and we were also staying there. We were on our way to Zambia for their independence celebration. And we had an opportunity to talk and chat with him about what was going on in America. And I think at that time Malcolm was seeking to find a way to identify with the Southern civil rights movement. He wanted to be helpful, wanted to be supportive. And as a matter of fact, he came to Selma. He came to Selma, February the 14th, 1965. And we were in jail, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the local authority refused to let him come and meet with us. He spoke at the Brown Chapel AME Church with Mrs. King to a group of high school students. And seven days later, he was assassinated.
Amy Goodman: On February 21st, 1965, he was gunned down.
Rep. John Lewis: I will never forget it, because February 21st is my birthday. And I was in a car on my way from southwest Georgia.
Amy Goodman: You were 25 years old.
Rep. John Lewis: Twenty-five. And I was going from southwest Georgia through Atlanta back to Selma, when we heard that he had been shot. I came to New York, attended the service for him.
Amy Goodman: What is your assessment of the significance of Malcolm X?
Rep. John Lewis: I think Malcolm played a major role in helping to educate, inform and dramatize the need for mass movement. People read about him. Many of the young people, black and white, read his story. Many did not agree necessarily with his techniques or his tactic. But if Malcolm had lived, I am convinced that he would have been part of the Southern nonviolent wing of the civil rights movement.
Amy Goodman: And his relationship with Dr. King? What did Dr. King think?
Rep. John Lewis: I remember Malcolm being in the hotel, before we even saw him in Kenya, the night of the March on Washington—the evening before the March on Washington. He was at the Hilton Hotel in Washington. Now, he didn’t like the way the march turned out, because he said it was like a picnic and that it was not strong enough.
Amy Goodman: And he wasn’t invited to speak.
Rep. John Lewis: He was not invited to speak. We—I didn’t have anything to do with that decision.
Amy Goodman: After the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Act were signed, Dr. King increasingly started speaking out against the Vietnam War—his inner circle saying, “Don’t give that speech at Riverside Church,” April 4th, 1967, a year to the day before he was assassinated in Memphis, the “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam” speech. “You’ve got the president of the United States behind you. You got him to sign the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act,” they said to Dr. King. “Don’t take him on in a war that is not ours.” Yet he defied them and said it is. Were you a part of that circle? What position did you take, John Lewis?
Rep. John Lewis: I supported the position of Martin Luther King Jr. As chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, during that time, we had already taken a position against the war in Vietnam. So many of the young people in SNCC, so many of the young people that we were working with all across the South were being drafted and going off to Vietnam, so we came out against the war in January 1966. But I was there at Riverside Church on the night of April 4th, 1967, when he spoke. And I think that speech is one of the greatest speeches. A lot of people speak about the March on Washington. It was a wonderful speech. But the speech against the war in Vietnam, Dr. King—he said, “I’m not going to segregate my conscience. If I’m against violence at home, I’m against violence abroad.” And he went on to say that America was the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. He was—he was a preacher. He was a prophet.
Amy Goodman: Do you agree with him?
Rep. John Lewis: I agree with him.
Amy Goodman: That the U.S. is the greatest purveyor of violence.
Rep. John Lewis: We have more—we spend hundreds and thousand, millions and billions of dollars on weaponry. We’re supplying the world. We sell arms to everybody. Dr. King was saying that we have to put an end to this madness. He was influenced by Gandhi, and Gandhi said it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. Dr. King went on to say, “We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters, or we will perish as fools.” He was saying, in effect, that we have enough bombs and missiles and guns to destroy the planet. He said it then, and it’s still true today.
Amy Goodman: At the time, Time magazine called the speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” That’s the Dr. King 1967 speech against the war in Vietnam. The Washington Post declared King had, quote, “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”
Rep. John Lewis: I think it’s so unfortunate that publications like Time magazine, Washington Post — if they had to rewrite those articles today, it would be a different story. Dr. King was right. He was right—and so many others, politicians, who came out against the war, whether it was Eugene McCarthy or others, later Bobby Kennedy. What that war helped to destroy: the hopes, the dreams and aspiration of so many people. War is bloody. It’s messy.
Amy Goodman: And so, today, the war in Afghanistan, the drone war that President Obama is conducting in Pakistan, in Yemen, in other places, with the “kill list,” that the Times called it, that he personally keeps and names the people he puts on the list—your thoughts?
Rep. John Lewis: Well, I think it’s time for us to end, end the efforts in Afghanistan. We cannot justify the killing of people that we don’t see. We don’t know anything about them, or very little. War is not the answer. War is obsolete. It cannot be used as a tool of our foreign policy. It’s barbaric. Someplace, somehow, people must come to that point and say, “I ain’t gonna stay the war no more.”
Amy Goodman: Have you talked to President Obama about this?
Rep. John Lewis: I have not had an opportunity. But I’ve spoken out on the floor of the House against the war in Afghanistan, as I did against the war in Iraq.
Amy Goodman: You voted in—three days after September 11, 2001, to give President Bush the authority to retaliate in a vote that was 420 to 1. You have described it was one of your toughest votes. Talk about how you decided to do that.
Rep. John Lewis: I was very disturbed about what happened on 9/11. And when I look back on it, if I had to do it all over again, I would have voted with Barbara Lee. It was raw courage on her part. So, because of that, I don’t vote for funding for war. I vote against preparation for the military. I will never again go down that road.
Amy Goodman: And what do you say to those who say, “Then you’re not supporting the military. You’re not supporting the soldiers, the troops”?
Rep. John Lewis: I support the soldiers. When I see young men in uniform, I say, “Thank you for your service.” And I tell them, “I want all of you to come home.” I tell them to their faces. I see them in the airports. I see them in Washington. I say, “It’s time for you to come home.”
Amy Goodman: You have written several books. The latest is Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change. Your book begins with a chapter on faith. Many of the great civil rights leaders, including yourself, were men and women of faith, but today religion is very politicized. Can you talk about that?
Rep. John Lewis: Faith is this belief, this sense that somehow and someway we will overcome. It’s belief that, in spite of all the odds, setbacks, delays, interruption, that we will make it, that we will arrive at a place where we recognize and respect the dignity and the worth of every human being. It’s in keeping with the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence to believe that we will and we shall overcome, that we will not get lost in a sea of despair, that we will not become bitter or hostile, but with our faith, we know that victory is there. It may take longer. It may be difficult. But you come to that point where there’s no turning back. Without that sense of faith, we wouldn’t be where we are today. People ask me all the time why you didn’t give up, why you didn’t turn back, why you didn’t fight back. My faith kept me going, kept me grounded, kept me anchored.
Amy Goodman: President Obama will be giving his renomination address at the Democratic convention in the Bank of America Stadium. I saw you four years ago at the Mile High Stadium in Denver, where they were honoring you. It was actually August 28th, 2008. It was the anniversary of Dr. King’s speech in Washington, as well as your own. But now President Obama will be speaking in Charlotte at the Bank of America Stadium, and the economy is a major issue, also deeply linked to the war. What are your thoughts today about where we have gone in this four years?
Rep. John Lewis: Well, it is—it’s my hope that President Obama and the Democratic Party will recapture the hopes, the dreams that people had four years ago, and have a platform, a program, where we must go now. How do we rescue and save people? How do we give people a feeling that they can survive, they can make it in America? People—many people lost their homes, their jobs. We must say, there is a way out, there is a better way. They cannot be shy because the convention is taking place in the Bank of America center. They’ve got to be strong. They’ve got to tell the truth.
Amy Goodman: Do you think people should be protesting as President Obama is speaking?
Rep. John Lewis: Well, I don’t know. If people feel that something is not right, is not fair, they have a right to protest.
Amy Goodman: Do you feel it’s not right? Would you be protesting?
Rep. John Lewis: I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know. I believe that the time is always right to do right, as Dr. King said, and people always have a right to protest for what is right.
Amy Goodman: How did you decide to go from activist, real street-fighting activist—you, yourself, weren’t physically fighting, but you were being fought by the police every step of the way—to a congressmember? Talk about the moment you made that decision and the year you did. How old were you?
Rep. John Lewis: I made the decision after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. I was with Robert Kennedy in Indianapolis, Indiana, on the evening of April 4, 1968, when I heard that Dr. King had been shot. I didn’t know his condition until Robert Kennedy spoke at a rally that I was having to organize and said that Dr. King had been assassinated.
Amy Goodman: I want to go to that clip.
Robert F. Kennedy: I have some very sad news for all of you, and I think sad news for all of our fellow citizens and people who love peace all over the world. And that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.
Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black, considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible, you can be filled with bitterness and with hatred and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization—black people amongst blacks and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.
For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with—be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond or go beyond these rather difficult times.
My favorite poem, my—my favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God.
What we need in the United States is not division. What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
Amy Goodman: That was Robert Kennedy in Indianapolis, breaking the news to so many. John Lewis, you were there.
Rep. John Lewis: I cried, with so many other people. And I said to myself, “We still have Bobby.” I went back to Atlanta, attended the funeral with Robert Kennedy and hundreds and thousands of others. After the funeral was over, I got back in the Kennedy campaign, went to Oregon and later to California. I campaigned for Bobby Kennedy with César Chávez. It was a wonderful effort. We went all over Los Angeles, going into wealthy neighborhoods, knocking on doors, urging people to vote for Bobby.
And that evening the primary was over, Bobby Kennedy came up to me and said, “John, I’m going downstairs to make my victory statement. Why don’t you remain?” I was in his suite with his sister, several other individuals, the brother of Medgar Evers. And we listened to Bobby, and he said, “On to Chicago.” And moments, minutes later, it was announced that he had been shot.
Dropped to the floor and cried and cried. I just wanted to get out of L.A. I got on a flight the next morning, flew to Atlanta, and I think I cried all the way from L.A. to Atlanta. And I came back to New York for the funeral. And before the funeral, I stood the night before as an honor guard with Reverend Ralph Abernathy. Then I rode the funeral train. The family asked me to ride with them from New York to Washington. And someplace along the way, I felt that somehow, in some way, I had to try to pick up where Dr. King and Robert Kennedy left off. These were my friends. These were my heroes. These were two young men that had inspired me. And some of my friends started encouraging me to get involved in electoral politics, do more than just register people, that I should run for office. And I made a decision years later to do it.
Amy Goodman: You have also been deeply opposed to the death penalty. A fellow Georgian, Troy Anthony Davis, you spoke out on his behalf. He was executed September 21st, 2011, in Jackson, Georgia, the death row prison. Now the 17th state has announced its opposition to the death penalty, Connecticut. What about the death penalty?
Rep. John Lewis: I think the death penalty is barbaric. It’s something that no civilized people should ever use. We don’t have a right to take another person’s life. We didn’t give it. It should be left to the Almighty, and not for a state, not for a government. On the federal level, we need to continue to speak up and speak out and put an end to the death penalty.
Amy Goodman: Finally, at the end of Across That Bridge, your new book, you write, “Just as Gandhi made it easier for King and King made it easier for Poland and Poland [made it easier] for Ireland [and] Ireland [made it easier] for Serbia [and] Serbia made it easier for the Arab Spring, [and] the Arab Spring made it easier for [the protests in] Wisconsin [and] Occupy…” Talk about these connections.
Rep. John Lewis: I believe there is something in human history—I call it the spirit of history. It’s like a spring, a stream, that continue to move. And individuals and forces come along that become symbols of what is good, what is right and what is fair. And that’s why I wrote this little book, to say to people that you, too, can allow yourself to be used by the spirit of history. Just find a way to get in the way. When I was growing up, my mother and father, my grandparents and great-grandparents were always telling me, “Don’t get in trouble. Don’t get in the way.” But I was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and others to get in the way, to get in trouble—good trouble, necessary trouble. And we all must find a way to have the courage to get in trouble, to do our part. Every generation must find a way to leave the planet, leave this little spaceship, earth, this little piece of real estate, a little better than we found it—a little cleaner, a little greener and a little more peaceful. I think that’s our calling. We have a mission, a mandate and a moral obligation to do just that.
Amy Goodman: John Lewis, 13-term congressmember, former chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, arrested more than 40 times, beaten repeatedly as he fought for voting rights and against a segregated America. He’s just written a new book called Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change.