For 60 years, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., fought unwaveringly for human rights and equality. Lewis was at times beaten and arrested, but he never lost the passion and will to fight for what he believes in.
In many ways, he’s a living reminder of what this nation endured to take the steps that led to a better sense of equality when it came to human and civil rights.
“We’re still making progress,” he said. “The scars of and stains of racism and sexism is still deeply embedded in American society. We’re not there yet.”
Lewis spoke at the Greenwald Pavilion on Friday as part of the Aspen Institute’s 2014 McCloskey Speaker Series. Elliot Gerson, executive vice president of the Aspen Institute, hosted the hourlong conversation.
Lewis was promoting his latest book, “March,” which he co-authored with Andrew Aydin, a congressional aide to Lewis. “March” is the first book in a trilogy, which Gerson described as a combination of personal memoirs, history and lessons in morality concerning the civil-rights movement.
“It’s a heck of a read for anybody,” Gerson said. “I would strongly recommend it, and interestingly, it takes the form of a comic book. It’s been on the New York Times best-seller list for 32 weeks.”
They also discussed Lewis’ personal history and several contemporary issues.
Lewis, 74, grew up in Alabama, where he was inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
He became a recognized voice and leader during the civil rights movement and has continued to be a champion for human rights for more than 50 years.
“When I first heard Dr. King speaking on the radio, I felt like he was speaking directly to me,” Lewis said. “Like he was saying, ’John Robert Lewis, you too can do something. You can make a contribution.’”
Lewis was 18 when he first met King, but he knew from that moment on that his life was about to change.
“I knew right then I couldn’t turn back,” Lewis said. “There was something about the man, his presence, what he said and the way he said it that inspired me. When you listened to Martin Luther King Jr., you had to move; you had to be committed and become dedicated to a cause, a movement.”
As Lewis spoke in Aspen, his deep voice was mostly smooth and steady. But when a topic came up that he felt strongly about, he would raise his voice with intensity, reminding the audience why he was such a powerful public speaker.
Lewis talked about campaigning for the Kennedys, the loss of King and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 and his becoming a leader of the nonviolent movement for equal rights.
“I learned if you’re going to lead, you had to be a headlight, not a taillight,” Lewis said. “I literally grew up during the sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee, in the early 1960s. We studied the way of love and nonviolence and accepted it as a way of life.”
Lewis shared his memories from “Bloody Sunday,” which recounts the attempted crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, when more than 600 peaceful protesters were violently attacked by the Alabama State Patrol.
Lewis had his skull cracked and suffered a serious concussion, but the sacrifices from that day led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 getting signed by President Johnson.
Lewis said he hopes America’s youth find ways to “get in the way” of current injustices and make a difference in today’s society. When asked where the youth of America will find inspiration, Lewis said maybe it’ll be somewhere like his book, “March.”
“That’s one reason we hope they’ll read ‘March,’” he said. “Maybe they would be inspired; maybe they would learn. When I was 17, I read a comic book called ‘Martin Luther King Jr.’ It was 14 pages and sold for 10 cents. That book helped me. We need to educate every possible young person that they can make a contribution, they can get involved and they can change their environment. Just like the children in Birmingham and Selma, they, too, can do it.”
Aydin said there’s no doubt that Lewis remains as passionate as ever when it comes to pursuing something he believes in.
“He never stops,” Aydin said. “I’m 30 years old, and even I have problems keeping up. The issue of civil rights encompasses so many challenges that face our society today. It’s not simply a black-and-white issue now. We’re also talking about income equality, access to education, access to health care and even access to the Internet to apply for a job. There are so many pieces that are civil-rights issues. That’s what’s made the use of nonviolence so vital and important to this generation and why we’re doing ‘March,’ so they can use those tools to effect change in those areas.”