Fighting for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, John Lewis was repeatedly beaten, harassed and threatened by those opposed to equal rights for blacks. But he and his fellow activists followed the biblical injunction to turn the other cheek and met violence with love and forgiveness.
Speaking at Dalton State College Monday night, Lewis, a Democrat who represents an Atlanta-based district in the U.S. House of Representatives, told of many of the conflicts he experienced. In 1961, for instance, he was one of the “Freedom Riders” who challenged Southern laws barring whites and blacks from sitting together on buses and other forms of transportation.
In Rock Hill, S.C., Lewis and another activist had just stepped off of an interstate bus and were about to enter a “whites only” waiting room when a mob set upon them, beating them. Local law enforcement stopped the beating and asked if Lewis and his friend wanted to press charges. They declined.
More than 40 years later, one of the men in the mob sought out Lewis and asked him to forgive him. Lewis said he hugged that man — Elwin Wilson — and told him he forgave him. They both began to cry.
“That is what the movement was all about,” Lewis said. “That is the essence of the beloved community.”
“Our forefathers and foremothers may have come here in different ships. But we are all in the same boat now,” Lewis added.
Lewis recounted his life growing up on a farm outside Troy, Ala. He said that when he and a group of his siblings and cousins went to the county library to get library cards they were turned down.
“They said the library was for whites only,” Lewis said, noting that the next time he was in that library was some 50 years later when it hosted him signing one of the books he has written.
“If someone tells you we haven’t come very far, come and walk in my shoes and I’ll show you how far we have come,” he said.
Lewis also recounted efforts by civil rights activists to register blacks to vote in Mississippi, Alabama and other Southern states. Those efforts were again met by violence and intimidation. Lewis himself had his skull fractured by Alabama state troopers during the “Bloody Sunday” attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery. And Lewis noted that three men he knew — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — were killed in Mississippi for their efforts to register black voters.
“We have to take part in the political process. We have to register and vote because people have died for that right,” he said.
And Lewis said America still has room to grow. He spoke out against state laws requiring a photo ID to vote, such as in Georgia, saying they impose a burden on many poor and minority voters. And he expressed hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will “do the right thing” and uphold the health care reform law that Congress passed two years ago.
Before his speech, Lewis was feted at a reception at Dalton’s Emery Center. Constructed as a school for black children in 1886, the building is now a museum and showplace for the area’s black history and culture.
Patricia Rivers, who serves as the center’s director with her husband Curtis, said she was excited about the opportunity to meet Lewis.
“I remember watching in the ‘60s when all of the marches and demonstrations were going on. And I remember seeing the scenes of him and the other people being beaten. It was a very hopeful time, but it was also a very frightening time,” she said.
Dionna Reynolds, one of the center’s board members, said it was a privilege for the center to host Lewis.
“It definitely brings a crowd, and when people are here they realize the significance of what we have here at the Emery Center, which compels them to come back and bring their family and children,” she said.