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From New York Times, unlikeable Laurel. This is The Daily. Today, though, life lessons and legacy of John Lewis. I spoke with my colleague Times editorial board member Brent Staples. It's Monday, July 20th. Brent, I want to start by. Going back with you to the time when John Lewis and others began engaging in nonviolent protests as part of a civil rights movement. Where were you during that period, like everyone else at the time?
In the middle 60s, I was sitting with my parents watching television.
It is 11:00 p.m. and time for the reporter and the news.
Everything bad news for Alabama today. Some school desegregation strategy has backfired lately.
Plus, demonstrators use a variety of other tactics designed to break the nightly news and the scenes of people being ravaged by the police in the south and the streets.
And I became attuned to the revolution that was unfolding in the south, where people had put themselves in harm's way to highlight the injustice of southern apartheid.
The is white. A big grill spattered with ketchup and mustard, sugar, salt and pepper were carted off on protesting Dijana.
But as I became volcanically active, I had. Difficult, a natural, probably natural difficulty understanding how one would put oneself on the line to be actually beaten and bloodied and what the utility of that was.
And by that time, the movement in the South have evolved, some by 60, 60, beginning at the Black Power.
They want us to use black power. I got news today. So I came into consciousness in my teens as a black power figure.
It is not a riot. It is a rebellion. It was empowering. To be proud of your black brothers and sisters. Because the four of us. And you've got the fuck.
But it took some time into my late teens to begin to understand what had happened. Coming up to. And that is when I become aware of what had passed before, when I was a younger kid.
In other words, it took you some time to understand why the nonviolent figures had taken the approach that they had taken. Yes.
So we got to take us through John Lewis's life and how this philosophy you just described was shaped and how it evolved. So where does that story begin?
John Lewis, he grows up in rural Alabama, near Troy, Alabama. His parents initially were sharecroppers. And, you know, sharecropping was a successor form of slavery. So John was born to that. And his parents thinks we're lucky they saved enough money to buy a farm. But he graduated high school, second in high school and wanted to go to Troy State College, which didn't admit black people. And he applied and sent in his information and he never heard back.
And he wrote a letter at one point to Martin Luther King. And I presume he wanted some help in desegregating Troy State. And Martin Luther King sent him a round trip bus ticket. Mm hmm. And he went and he met King and they formed the relationship, the substance of that. I don't know. But it was extremely influential for John. And he left Troy. Not long after and moved to Nashville. He went to seminary in Nashville, and there he met some of the early civil rights figures, he met James Lawson, Reverend James Lawson, who was kind of a philosopher of non-violent resistance.
Lawson had studied Gandhi's non-violent movement and the strategies that Gandhi had deployed against Britain during the colonial period. And he'd come back with a deep sense of what the philosophy was and how powerful nonviolence could be. And what exactly is the philosophy? I have a John's memoir here in 1958. I think it is Jim Lawson mentions to him the idea of, quote, redemptive suffering. And he explains that it affects not only ourselves, but it touches and changes those around us as well.
It opens us and those around us to a force beyond ourselves, a force that is right and moral. The force of righteous truth, that is the basis of human conscious suffering puts us and those around us in touch with our conscience since it opened and touches our hearts. It makes us feel compassion where we need to and. If we must. So this idea to him, this redemptive suffering. It is at the heart of. The philosophy of nonviolent protest at the very heart of it.
This isn't a good paragraph in the book. One method of practicing this approach when faced with a hateful, angry, aggressive, even despicable person, is to imagine that person actually visualize him or her as an infant, as a baby. If you can see this full grown attacker who faces you as a pure, innocent child that he or she once was. It is not hard to find compassion in your heart. But then there wasn't just a tactic.
It was a way of life. It was embracing the biblical prescription. Then one must love one's enemies. That's a biblical prescription. And it's the hardest thing in the world to carry out. Well, so how do we start to see this get carried out? Among Lewis and these seminary students in Nashville? Well, Nashville was itself at the time, another southern town where if you went in to a restaurant and sat down, the people would just look at you in.
The waiters would say, sorry, this place doesn't serve niggers. And that would generally be the end of it. But these students came in and place and sat down and asked to be fed. And when they were told that they were not, sir, they stayed and they took a lot of abuse from it.
And people, you know, people spat upon them, beat them, battered them and poured condiments over their heads, all kinds of thing.
And I remember our friend, David Halberstam, our former colleague, was working at a newspaper there at the time. He is working at the Nashville, Tennessee. And this is one of the things he wrote. The protest had been conducted with exceptional dignity. And gradually, one image had come in to prevail, that of elegant, courteous young black people holding to their Gandhian principles, seeking the most elemental of rights while being assaulted by young white hoodlums who beat them up and on occasion extinguish cigarettes on their bodies.
So you see John Lewis and others being carried away in these really suits and ties. And Chris, white shirts and basically, you know, refusing to walk themselves, being completely passive and non resistant.
This worked out extremely. I mean, in a very short period of time, we worked out extremely well and met after three months of citizens, the city basically cave and became the first major southern city to begin desegregating public facilities.
So very early on the protest that John Lewis is beginning to participate in after he meets Martin Luther King and begins to understand the strategy, they are starting to show real signs of effectiveness. Oh, yeah. These peaceful, nonviolent protests. Exactly. Now, this is the astonishing thing to me today. Even to this day, they get to. Practice the non-violent approach to life to really embrace it. One needs to understand that the person who was extinguishing a cigarette in your throat because you want to sit down at a luncheon counter is as much a victim as you are.
What do you say you in pursuit of justice? You can not let violence when your heart. That if you do that, you are surrendering a really. To the dark force that you're trying to defeat, bring, you're reading from a memoir that is written in the later years of John Lewis's like book. My understanding is that this philosophy that he embraced and that he practiced, that it was not entirely a foregone conclusion that this would be the way that it went and that the march on Washington is an example of a moment where we see a young John Lewis grappling with which path he's going to take.
Can you tell us the story of that speech?
Well, you see what I what I finally figured out? Is that by the time John Lewis at the age of 23. Gets to the march on Washington. This most important public gathering of black people in the century. He has already been on the Freedom Rides. Integrated groups have taken buses into the Deep South to test laws that forbid segregation on interstate transport. He's been arrested on those ships for going into white only bathroom. He's been beaten just for being on buses with white people.
In the end, John ends up being harassed like 40 times. All right.
And if you look at some of the pictures of the mug shots when he's arrested, you can see him smiling because he's Bensoussan. You think you're afflicting me, but you're playing into what I want to do. Mm hmm. But he's still twenty three is a. That's all he is. And he basically comes into Washington with a speech. And this one somehow found its way into public. And one of the striking things about it, he tells people to get into the street and stay in the streets until the revolution is finished.
And his he names the sort of racist segregationist senators by name and state governors. Wow. I'm a read from it. We won't stop now. All the forces of Eastland Barnett, Wallace Thurman won't stop this 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 nonviolently.
Well, and to explain that reference, he's referring to the union general who literally burns large sections of the South during the Civil War.
Yes, he's referring to when it comes to the sermon. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground nonviolently. We shall fragment the south into a thousand pieces and put them back together in an image of democracy. We will make the action of the past few months look petty. And I say to you, wake up a bear print.
That language doesn't sound even as it invokes the word nonviolent. So what do you think that he meant by those words in that draft?
Well, I've come to figure out what he meant. Now, understand, as I was saying earlier, by the time he renders his speech right, he has become steeped in the nonviolent impulse. But his frame, he was. Portraying it as a forceful measure that could be as powerful and changing as was the sweep of Sherman through South Carolina and Georgia. Hmm. Mm hmm. What do you have here is John is working at a very high concept here, right?
He's working at a high concept. He said, you know, we can be. He was essentially arguing that nonviolent protests could be transformative, as transformative and as disruptive as war as carried out by the most feared general in the union army. Mm hmm. That is it stuff. A very powerful metaphor. And it's a testament to his beliefs and what his approach could do.
And he was calling upon hundreds of thousands of people to come out into the street and make that a reality. You know, but that is that's a high concept. On the evening news, you can imagine you'd end up with a snippet of a scorched earth schurman burning Atlanta again, where you might get lost in translation.
It might actually undermine the very thing he's trying to promote.
Exactly. So basically, you know, A.. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, those guys prevailed on him to make some changes in it. They were talking about, let's not do anything to just not give them a sound bite. That's going to give us some. I can hear him saying I don't have the tape, but I can hear them saying to John. Let's not give them a sound bite. It's going to get I'm sure you can say it's a revolution.
You can call people on the street. You can even call the black masses if you want to, even though that sounds like communism. Right. You could say those things. But let's leave off Sherman for next time. Right. So Sherman goes out.
We want to provide jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of. Go home and follow rule of law. Brothers, we're not here.
He talks about marching. The time will come. Who will not come on our mark to Washington.
We will not do a march to the scene of Jackson's industry in Danville, through Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham. What are you, Marge? What's the spirit of law and what the spirit of dignity that we have shown today? But forces our demand, our determination and our numbers. We share the planet, a segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy. We must wake up and wrap up. Wake up.
We cannot stop. And we will not and cannot be patient. This is pretty much the same. But Sherman is miss. So in terms of thinking about this speech that John Lewis drafted versus the one he delivered on that historic day, you're saying it's not that the earlier version of the speech shows John Lewis questioning the non-violent approach. It's that he believed in the nonviolent approach, but that the language he contemplated using his belief that the power of that approach could be as powerful as burning.
That was determined to be potentially counterproductive to the non-violent approach she believed.
Exactly. But he talks about going back to his hotel room after that first conversation and just be livid because cause it's it it's a twenty three year old man speech and a twenty year old man who had been beaten to an inch of his life for a while, fighting for dignity for black people. I'm sure he felt entitled to say any damn thing he wanted to because he had the credibility of the streets behind him. And the people in the south began to know who he was and they were going to really know who he is.
Come two years later at the voting rights march at Selma.
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U.S. bank equal housing lender member, FDIC. Brent, tell me about that. I mean, let's talk about what happens after the march on Washington, after John Lewis's rhetorical wings are ever so slightly clipped. But he does deliver the essential message. How do we see this concept of the power of nonviolence actually play out over the next couple of years?
The next big data point becomes the voting rights struggle in Selma, Alabama. Now, it's important, I think, to dilate for just a second for the modern listener.
The modern listener needs to understand that in voting arrangements in the South before the Voting Rights Act, registrars, local registrars had complete authority to do whatever they wanted with people who came in to register to vote. They could give you a test and say you failed it so you can't register.
They did that all day long, all day, every day to black people in Virginia, a woman, a college educated woman, black woman who I believe was a teacher when I was a registrar at one point and filled the application and the registrar handed her literacy test.
You know what, it consisted of a blank sheet of paper. Yeah. So what does this say? And she looked at it and handed it back and said nothing. He said, you're wrong. You say you can't register. Elsewhere in the south, they might ask you if you came in to register the boat. How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap elsewhere?
A famous example in the film Selma, where a woman had come in to register one year and they told her asked her how many judges are there in the state of Alabama? And she didn't know. So. So you failed. She came back the second year and she said, how many county judges are there in Alabama? I think it was 60. She's a 67. They said, now, before you register, you have to name.
So this was what life was like for black people seeking the vote. Now, John, does this organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had already set up a voting rights project in Selma and have been working on that, but it came to fruition in 1965 where people have been fed up. And so they staged a march from Selma to Montgomery to protest in favor of voting rights for black people on the court.
And then that fateful day on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were walking. State troopers came out and said this is unlawful to be detrimental to Europe.
It is marked by an unlawful assembly. The first you are ordered to disperse, go go to your church. That march, you cannot afford to fail this part. And then John said to the sheriff, you said, can I have a word? Because, you know, he's in the front with his little off white trench coat. And now there's a thing about this trench coat, right? It's very light. So you can see him standing out from everyone else.
And the other thing about it is once blood gets on it, you can really see it. So I'm sure that that was premeditated.
So he comes OUTFRONT and he says, can I have a word? No, you can't have a word. And the troopers begin to advance and they beat holy hell out of those people. They sent fifty eight people to the hospital.
John Lewis suffers a fractured skull. And by the time the film is flowing back to New York to be shown on the air, and it's really one of those films where you see these people running, you see tear gas and these billy clubs guy up and down just beating the shit out of people. And because John was in front, you could see him holding his head where he'd been hit as on the ground. That that, in my opinion, that is stirring here, but in my opinion, that was the ultimate triumph of the non-violent approach and the suffering approach that he was saying.
Why triumphant? Well, it was triumphant because. Even people who had tried to look away from what was happening in the South were forced to see the long arm of the law persecuting people public. That's just pressingly trying to kill them publicly. And also, the Voting Rights Act was pending at that time.
And after this happened, Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of both houses of Congress, I believe, and said it was more than 100 years ago that Abraham Lincoln, the great president of another party, signed the Emancipation Proclamation emancipation as a proclamation and not a fact. A century has passed more than 100 years since equality was almost.
We cannot delay any longer.
A century has passed since the day of promise, and the promise is unkept. The time of justice has now come.
We shall overcome. So the Voting Rights Act was signed later that summer in August. It didn't take long. So when people come in to register to vote, you can no longer ask them how many bubbles are in a bar of soap or a name. Every judge in the state. This is a big leap in our time. So quite literally, there's a straight line between the scene of what happened on that bridge. And something John Lewis knew would be so powerful, the concept of nonviolence, suffering and the legislative remedy back in Washington that resulted.
Yes, because the world has seen this happen, right? Yeah, I think so.
But also, you know, you begin to see, you know, the sort of apex of this mess. It really is. Sixty five. Sixty six. And at some point, them, John, is your place in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee presidency by Stokely Carmichael. A fiery orator and one of the primary enunciators of the Black Power movement that was more consistent with the emerging radicalism of the time.
And that was the movement that you felt a part of? Yes. That's where we came into the story. You know?
Brent, on some level, you and your cohort must have thought that this approach, the John Lewis approach, had limitations, given that by the time you were a teenager or maybe even entering your early 20s, there was this new philosophy taking hold of of a more elbows out, less restrained approach.
So how do you think about that? Well, you know, it's interesting. And I do think about it. What it happened really is every generation, until it educates itself, thinks its experience is unique. So we thought we were unique. You know, my cousins and I and we had our big meetings and we we don't have press conferences. And, you know, we were we had a different rhetorical stance. But in the end, the tools were exactly the same.
The tools were thus set in of the administration building. The tool was the sit in in the street that ran through campus. The tool was the building take over. These were the same tools, man. We. I mean, I had bigger hair. Right? Right. And I'll send you a picture of it. Absolutely. Please do. I have good hair. But if you look back on, the tools were the same.
And it was it was a foundation that had already been built. Even if you didn't see it that way at the time and even if you didn't know it.
What I'm saying. Even you didn't know. I keep going back to this point. Earlier in this story, when they were doing the Freedom Rides in 1961, they had a big Chinese dinner in Washington that people were going off on these freedom rides. And a lot of people wrote their wills, wills because they thought that they'd be killed. The chance they'd be killed never come back. And they referred to the meal at the Chinese restaurant as the Last Supper.
Mm hmm. So these people were willing to put their lives on the line. We're willing to accept the possibility that they would be killed in the pursuit of justice and that their dead bodies laying out in public would be part of a sacrifice that would advance the cause of justice. That's profound. No. So with all that in mind, Brett, how are you thinking about John Lewis's legacy at this moment as we talk in the middle of yet another critical moment in this movement?
And when the work is still understood to be very unfinished, you know, John Lewis in the waning days of his life was. Heartened and overjoyed to see the global protests that unfolded. After killing him, Mr. Floyd, he talked about it as part of the extension of his work and one of the things he said, essentially paraphrasing, he said the things out of a box. Now, he said there's no going back from this.
And what about the principles of his life? How are you thinking about those in this moment? Well, I think that is, you see, his point of view was borne out.
The other day, The New York Times had a story in which it had sixty four examples, video examples of police brutalizing peaceful demonstrators. Mm hmm. Right now, what is that? What that is, is what John was talking about. He was talking about this kind of injustice perpetrated on people who did not deserve it, did not warrant that kind of treatment.
And also, we've been seeing in this unfolding of the Florida protests in a repeated theme in the news stories, white suburbanites or, you know, middle class white people who supported the police unquestioningly. Right. They have changed their minds.
The brutal, persuasive thing is seeing people walking around in the street with signs unarm not doing anything untoward and B, brutalise, that turns out to be the most persuasive thing for society and for the people to whom it does happen to resist, resist, resist power.
In other words, we are again seeing this idea of the beloved community playing out the Gandhian philosophy, this biblical approach, the describe.
It's where it's where it's working. It's painfully working again.
Yes. This is painful. Lord knows it is just pain. But the abuse of the people in public, people's constitutional rights, you know, through violence by police organizations has broad rippling consequences. Is having broad rippling consequences beyond the people where you beat up who now don't have confidence in the police. And John saw that. Brent, is there anything from Lewis's memoir that you haven't already shared that that you want to leave us with? Well, I don't know if it fits, but perhaps we should just put that aside and read from one of John Lewis's favorite poems.
It's Invictus by William Ernest Henley. Out of the night, that covers me black as the pit from pole to pole, I think whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul in the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not witnessed nor cried aloud under the bludgeoning of chance. My head is bloody, but unbowed beyond this place of wrath and tears looms. But the horror of the shade. And yet the menace of the years finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how straight the gate, how charged with punishments. The scroll. I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul. Brent, thank you very much. We really appreciate your time today. Well, good to be with you.
Boy, Congressman Lewis joins us now for his first network TV interview since the protests over the death of George FOID began. Congressman John Lewis, it's so good to see you. I can't tell you. You are such a sight for sore eyes today. It's really good to see you. What would you tell, Congressman? Young people and people, quite frankly, who are not so young about the best way to seek justice? You know, there's been a lot of controversy, a lot of talk about the looting.
And we should we should stress that most of the protests were very peaceful. But there was some looting. There was some disruption. What would you say to people about the best way to achieve justice?
It was very moving, very moving to see hundreds and thousand people from all over America and around the world taken to the streets, to the roadways to stand up, to speak up, to speak out, to do what I call getting in trouble during the 60s. The great majority of us accepted the way of peace, the way of love. Philosophy and discipline of nonviolence as a way of life, as a way to live in. There's something cleansing, something wholesome.
About being peaceful. An orderly. To stand up in with a sense of dignity and a sense of pride. And Nilla Hate adductor King King's it over and over again.
Hate is too heavy a burden to bear. The way of love so much better way. And that's what we did. We were arrested. Yes, I was beaten, left bloody and unconscious. Well, I never became bitter. Hastert never gave up. I believe that some high in some way, if it becomes necessary to use our bodies to have redeemed the soul of a nation, then we must do it, create a society at peace with yourself.
That's it for The Daily. I'm Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow. Do you avoid tough problems and shy away from a debate? Do you think uncertainty limits potential? Neither do we at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. We believe in asking questions and questioning answers. With campuses in Chicago, London and Hong Kong, the booth MBA is for people who see challenges as opportunities and want the skills to make positive change in any markets anywhere in the world.
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