Long a Force for Progress, a Freedom Summer Legend Looks Back

Georgia Congressman John Lewis talks about what changed — and didn’t — because of the movement he helped to lead 50 years ago.

August 19, 2014

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., is the most iconic living veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, the sole survivor of the leaders known as the Big Six. He is the only speaker left from the pivotal 1963 March on Washington.

Lewis was a Freedom Rider and was among the first to launch the sit-ins, protests to integrate lunch counters and other spaces. In 1964, he traveled the country, recruiting college students to travel to the deepest South for Freedom Summer. A year later, the blood Lewis spilled in the now-infamous clash between peaceful marchers and state and local police on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge helped propel the 1965 Voting Rights Act through Congress.

About three weeks ago, I sat down with the congressman to talk about his role in Freedom Summer and the battles still to come as part of our series commemorating the effort’s 50th anniversary. This week marks the culmination of Freedom Summer, when black Mississippians challenged Mississippi’s all-white delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.

Today, Lewis represents Georgia in the House of Representatives, in a seat that wouldn’t have existed without Freedom Summer and the larger civil rights movement. Black and white photos of the struggle and its leaders adorn the walls of his office, turning them into a historical mosaic.

At the time we met, we could not have known that eerily similar images would soon be emerging from a small Missouri town after a white police officer killed an unarmed black teen, prompting protests and a virulent response from law enforcement that included tear gas, tanks and rubber bullets.

Last night, Lewis marched with demonstrators in Atlanta who were supporting protestors in Ferguson, Mo. We were unable to speak with Lewis about the situation in Ferguson, but parts of this Q&A seem prescient in how they reveal the ways in which, despite great progress, race remains an open wound in this country.

Q:You had left college to start working on civil rights. In 1964, you traveled across the country to convince other students to do the same thing. The students who ended up coming were largely white; they were leading more privileged, safe lives. How did you convince these students to give up the relative safety of where they were to come to what was one of the most dangerous places?

A: During the summer of 1964, SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, along with the NAACP in Mississippi and CORE launched Mississippi Freedom Summer, to urge African Americans to become participants in the Democratic process, to register to vote. As you well know, in 1964, the state of Mississippi had a black voting age population of more than 450,000 and only about 16,000 blacks were registered to vote. Many people of color lived in fear. People had been arrested, jailed, beaten. Emmett Till had been lynched. People had been murdered. Medgar Evers had been assassinated in 1963. Mississippi was a dangerous place. I grew up in rural Alabama and Alabama was bad but we all saw Mississippi was worse.

I visited Mississippi for the first time in May of 1961, going on the Freedom Rides. (I was) arrested, jailed, in a city jail, the county jail, and later taken to the state penitentiary at Parchment. I knew or had some idea of what we were getting involved with. It was dangerous, very dangerous, but we had to go there. And we convinced students, young people, religious leaders and others to support an effort and people responded.

Q:What did you say, though, when you were going to visit these campuses, to convince people to leave that behind to come join the fight?

A: Well, the issue of civil rights, it was the issue to deal with. We had had the March on Washington in 1963. These young people, these students, had witnessed the march and some had participated in the march. Many of these young people knew what happened in Birmingham during the spring of 1963. Bull Connor used dogs and fire hoses on children and women. So, it was not hard to convince young people, to convince students and religious leaders to come to Mississippi.

They responded. We kept saying the vote is precious, the vote is important. I had said earlier, on Aug. 28, 1963, when I spoke at the March on Washington, I made the statement after seeing an article in The New York Times concerning women in southern Africa attempting to register to vote and participate in the political process, and I said something like, “One man, one vote is the African cry. It is ours too; it must be ours.”

And that became the rallying cry for the young people in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. All across America, on college campuses where we had friends of SNCC, people were wearing the buttons saying “One Man, One Vote.” It was on our letterhead, it was on posters, so people knew something about this idea of getting people to register to vote and they wanted to be part of it.

We knew by appealing to students and saying we need at least 1,000 students to come. And you’re right the great majority of the young people were white and they came from the North. But some white Southerners participated and many black students came from southern schools and from southern communities and from places like Howard (University) and Fisk University and Tennessee State University. As a matter of fact, two Japanese students… came from Canada and worked on the summer and later became SNCC volunteers in the South. So it was black and white, Latinos and Asians that participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer.

Q:You yourself were a child of sharecroppers who sacrificed so that you could go to college. How were you able to make the decision that you were willing to leave college for a period of time to fight for civil rights?

A: Well, it was important. It was important. Growing up in rural Alabama, 50 miles from Montgomery, I saw the signs and symbols of segregation and racial discrimination – I didn’t like it. I had been deeply inspired by the action of Rosa Parks, the word and leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. I had heard about Emmett Till, when I was 15 years old in 1955, and I kept thinking that this could be one of my first cousins traveling from Buffalo, N.Y., to rural Alabama during the summer of 1955. So it was Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., the Little Rock Nine, all sort of inspired me to find a way to do something. And when I had an opportunity, had a chance, and became the chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, I made a commitment to do everything possible to end discrimination and end segregation.

Q:A lot of people saw things they didn’t like, and weren’t able to or didn’t actually do anything. What was the

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