JACKSON – The nation paused this week in ceremonies honoring Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago. One civil rights veteran who spoke uniquely represented a human link to King’s imprint on American history.
John Lewis, today a 27-year Democratic congressman from Georgia, remains the lone surviving keynote speaker at the King-led “March On Washington” which brought an extraordinary biracial crowd of 250,000 to the Washington mall to support civil rights and jobs for black Americans.
Now 73 years old, Lewis had been chosen by King to speak for the younger generation of civil rights activists.
But Lewis’ claim to civil rights heroism goes far beyond oratory. He literally spilled blood and underwent brutal treatment at the hands of Alabama and Mississippi law enforcement officers when he nonviolently stood up for the cause of racial equality in the 1960s.
Not long after the 1965 March on Washington, Lewis organized the voting rights march in Montgomery, Ala., which ended in the infamous “Bloody Sunday” beating of marchers by Alabama state troopers, images of which were caught on TV and newspaper cameras. The vicious attack on the marchers (with Lewis in the lead) stunned the nation and motivated President Lyndon Johnson to enact the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
My memory of Lewis goes back to May, 1961 when the first Freedom Rider bus rolled into Jackson’s Trailways Bus Station. I watched Lewis step off the bus and then be placed under arrest by Jackson cops when he tried to enter the whites-only waiting room. Though Lewis and the other 12 riders were not roughed up by Jackson officers (who were ordered to be on their best behavior) things changed shortly after. Lewis and the others were shipped off to Mississippi’s then-infamous Parchman Penitentiary where they were thrown into cells in the prison’s maximum security wing. Held for 40 days, they were doused with fire hoses, cattle prods and locked up in stifling heat.
On a stop in Montgomery, Ala., the day before Lewis and the other riders arrived in Jackson their bus was set afire and baseball bat-wielding thugs attacked the riders when they poured out of the bus.
That incident prompted Attorney General Robert Kennedy to get assurances from Mississippi’s governor, Ross Barnett, that the riders would be protected from such an attack.
I had a jovial good time jostling with Lewis when he and I were together on the same discussion panel in 1987 at a remarkable three-day Civil Rights forum at Ole Miss. The forum brought together dozens of journalists who covered the explosive 1960s Civil Rights movement and a number of leading civil rights figures such as Lewis. In itself, the 1987 forum ranks as a rare moment in American history, because nothing comparable to it has ever been assembled.
The bond of friendship John Lewis and I sealed back then has endured as we have visited on various occasions whenever he has returned to Mississippi to mark some event in civil rights history.
Today John Lewis stands as the consummate symbol for the cause of justice for American blacks, a rightful place he has earned from dozens of incarcerations, and physical attacks so serious as to be life-threatening. As he looks back, he sees progress has been made since 1963, but as he said on NBC’s Meet The Press, Martin Luther King’s “dream” has not been fulfilled.
Syndicated columnist BILL MINOR has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.