By Bill Minor
JACKSON – When the first busload of 13 Freedom Riders rolled into Jackson’s Trailways bus station on May 24, 1961, off stepped a 21-year-old student named John Lewis, followed shortly by a Mississippi National Guard lieutenant colonel named G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery, assigned to head a Guard unit to prevent violence as riders encountered in Alabama.
No one, including this reporter who witnessed the riders’ arrival and quick arrest by Jackson police, could have foreseen that this was an extraordinary moment of history.
Twenty-five years later, John Lewis, who is black, and the late Sonny Montgomery, who was white, would be sitting together as Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Lewis, who since 1986 has served as Georgia’s 5th District congressman, underwent brutal treatment at the hands of Mississippi and Alabama law enforcement officers in the 1960s. Not the least was incarceration for 40 days in a maximum security cell at Mississippi’s notorious Parchman penitentiary for his “crime” of entering a whites-only bus station waiting room in Jackson.
No African-American could have more reason today to be bitter toward white Southerners than Lewis for 40 arrests, physical attacks and serious injuries, but the soft-spoken Lewis holds no bitterness for those who sought to deny him his civil rights, and he is highly respected by his congressional colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
Recognized as a civil rights icon, Lewis never engages in flamboyant rhetoric and when he speaks, he is capable of reverting to the cadence of a black preacher to make his point.
The day before the Freedom Riders arrived in Jackson to challenge segregation at the bus terminal, in Montgomery the bus they started the journey on was set upon by a mob of white men wielding baseball bats. Lewis was one of those badly beaten before police finally arrived. Attorney General Robert Kennedy had convinced Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett to provide protection for the bus when it entered his state. Hence, the stationing of Montgomery (who was then a state senator) and his armed coterie on the bus when it reached Meridian.
Lewis soon helped form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, commonly known as SNCC, and became its chairman until 1966, when a more militant group of black activists led by Stokely Carmichael considered Lewis too conservative and forced him to resign. When Martin Luther King, Jr. led his famous rally in Washington, DC in August, 1963, Lewis was chosen to be one of the keynote speakers. And he helped spearhead the Montgomery march in 1965 which ended as “Bloody Sunday,” the seminal event that was caught on network TV cameras when the marchers were brutally beaten by Alabama state troopers.
President Jimmy Carter named Lewis to direct more than 250,000 volunteers of ACTION, a federal community action agency. Before being elected to Congress, Lewis had served on the Atlanta City Council, becoming a strong advocate for ethics in government and neighborhood preservation.
Two weeks ago, President Obama presented the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, to 15 distinguished persons, and John Lewis, whom former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called “the conscience of the United States Congress,” was one of the recipients.
Lewis has made his way back to Mississippi on several notable occasions. Among them was 1987 three-day Civil Rights forum at Ole Miss, which was an outstanding gathering of dozens of journalists who had covered the Civil Rights movement, together with some leading activists from that era. I was fortunate that John Lewis was a member of my discussion panel and we were able to seal our friendship.
The last time I saw Lewis was on June 20, 2004, when he joined in a remarkable day of reconciliation at Philadelphia, Miss., marking 40 years since three young civil rights workers were lynched by Ku Klux Klansmen. That day, white and black townspeople came together in what native son Dick Molpus said was “nothing short of a miracle.” One noted speaker that day was black leader James Young, then a Neshoba county supervisor. Since, the white-majority citizenry of Philadelphia elected him mayor.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at email@example.com.