Congressman John Lewis

The Interview

Congressman John Lewis

By Pete Eikenberry

EikenberryIn May 1963, the infamous Birmingham, Alabama, Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor ordered police dogs and men with fire hoses to attack civil rights marchers. As a result, President Kennedy gave a televised address in June calling for passage of a civil rights bill. The bill was passed in February 1964. In March 1965, civil rights leaders embarked upon a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The march was called to dramatize a voter registration drive – and to influence Washington legislators to pass a voting rights bill. The two leaders of the march were Hosea Williams of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (“SCLC”) and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (“SNCC.”) Although the SNCC board had voted not to take part in the march, John Lewis chose to participate as an individual.

On May 20, 2014, Rev. Jerome Robinson (who is married to Sheila Boston, a partner in Kaye Scholer) and I interviewed the now 74-year-old long-time Congressman John Lewis in his offices in Washington. I had worked with the late Hosea Williams when I was a civil rights volunteer lawyer in Grenada, Mississippi, in July and August 1966; I wished to talk to Congressman Lewis about Mr. Williams for a writing project I am undertaking. On March 7, 1965, now known as “Bloody Sunday,” John and Hosea led the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in the face of hostile troopers commanded by Sheriff Jim Clark. In May 2014, Mr. Lewis recalled that day to Jerome and me as follows:

On Bloody Sunday, Hosea was so dignified; he was so peaceful and so quiet. At one point, he asked me when we were walking across the bridge crossing Alabama River, can I swim? I said, “Nope, what about you?” He said, “Yes, a little,” and we never said another word to each other; it was just a silent walk until we came on the high point on that bridge and then we looked down below; Hosea said, “You see the guys with the gas masks? John they’re going to gas us.” When we got within “hand” distance, the Major said, “This is an unlawful march, it will not be allowed to continue; I’ll give you two minutes to return to your homes or to your church.” Hosea said, “Major give us a moment to kneel and pray,” but the Major said, “Troopers advance!” Then we saw these guys putting on their gas masks, and they just came at us.

Roy Reed of the Times reported the incident on March 7, 1965, as follows:

About 525 marchers had left Browns Chapel and walked six blocks to Broad Street, then across Pettus Bridge and the Alabama River, where a cold wind cut at their faces and whipped their coats. They were young and old and they carried an assortment of packs, bedrolls and lunch sacks.
The troopers, more than 50 of them, were waiting 300 yards beyond the end of the bridge. Behind and around the troopers were a few dozen possemen, 15 of them on horses, and perhaps 100 white spectators…. The marchers had passed about three dozen more possemen at the other end of the bridge. They were to see more of that group.
The troopers stood shoulder to shoulder in a line across both sides of the divided four-lane highway. They put on gas masks and held their night sticks ready as the marchers approached marching two abreast, slowly and silently. The troopers rushed forward, their blue uniforms and white helmets blurring into a flying wedge as they moved. The wedge moved with such force that it seemed almost to pass over the waiting column instead of through it. The first 10 or 20 marchers were swept to the ground screaming, arms and legs flying, and packs and bags went skittering across the grassy divider strip and on to the pavement on both sides.
A cheer went up from the white spectators lining the south side of the highway. The mounted possemen spurred their horses and rode at a run into the retreating mass. The marchers cried out as they crowded together for protection, and the whites on the sideline whooped and cheered…Suddenly there was a report, like a gunshot, and a gray cloud spewed over the troopers and the marchers. “Tear gas!” someone yelled. The cloud began covering the highway. Fifteen or twenty nightsticks could be seen through the gas, flailing at the heads of the marchers.

Among other casualties of March 7, Mr. Lewis suffered a fractured skull, which required his hospitalization for a considerable period of time. On March 9, a Unitarian minister from Boston was beaten to death in Selma. On March 15, President Johnson addressed a joint session of congress calling for passage of a voting rights bill. The Senate adopted the bill on May 25 and the House passed it on July 9 – both by 4-1 majorities. As Andrew Kopkind wrote in the New Republic on March 20, 1965, “Selma’s Sheriff Jim Clark can take much of the credit for the bill not so much, perhaps, as ‘Bull’ Connor takes for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but a fair sized piece nonetheless.” I said to Mr. Lewis that in 1966 Hosea had told me repeatedly that “Bull Connor was the hero of the Civil Rights movement.” Lewis said that:

President Kennedy was not the first person to say and not the last person to suggest that if we honored people for the contribution they made, that we shouldn’t forget Bull Connor for what he did in 1963, when he let loose the dogs and the water hoses to create the climate, the environment for President Kennedy to come forth and make the speech he made on the night of June 11, 1963. In Hosea’s travels in Alabama and throughout the south and around the country, he said, “We have a man in Birmingham named Bull Connor but he’s no longer a Bull he’s a steer now. Hosea was very, very colorful. He was born in Georgia as you well know, went into the military, came back, studied, and got a job in Savannah where he came under the influence of Dr. King. He became one of the outspoken leaders, some people call him a non-violent “raporizer.” He had the ability, he had the capacity to move a crowd, he loved singing, he loved music, not that he had such a great voice, but he could speak loud and he could sing loud and he was a good organizer. Just the average “Joe,” pulling people off the street, going into a bar, a pool room and said, “Come on, follow Dr. King we got a movement going.” He joined SCLC and became what some people called one of the field hands, one of the individuals that created and moved the crowd or prepared the crowd or prepared the audience for Martin Luther King Jr. to address what some people would say to clean up what Hosea had messed up. When I say mess up, he messed it up in the good sense of the words.

I said to Mr. Lewis, “You said in your book that you rarely did night marches but in Grenada, Hosea led night marches.” Mr. Lewis replied:

Night marches are dangerous. They’re very, very dangerous, so in Nashville we tried doing the sit-ins at lunch time. In 1961 during the stand-ins at theaters, we tried everything possible to have all of our marching, and sit-ins, stand-ups, whatever you want to call it, in open daylight- so you can see. When you have people marching at night, bad things can happen.

I said, “But Hosea wanted to prove that people weren’t afraid; he wanted to show that white people can’t hurt them and to prove that black people should not be afraid. The federal judge required the marchers to go 2 by 2 in squads of 20 in order to award court protection to the marchers. Young women were at the heart of the movement, and when each squad entered the Grenada’s town square, the women’s singing was reinforced and got louder and louder. They sang this song, ‘yahh, yahh, yah, yahdy yah, yahhh’ as the hundreds of whites in the square screamed obscenities and worse restrained by 200 white shirted shot gun wielding state highway patrolman.” Mr. Lewis said:

Hosea had the ability to sort of improvise songs like a lot of people; different participants would just go out in a line and do these little made up songs. I can’t sing; I tell people I sing so low so no one can hear me.

Jerome asked Mr. Lewis how he came to march in Selma, and he replied:

SNCC didn’t want to support the march, and though I was chairman of the organization, I broke with the group after an all-night meeting at a little restaurant in Atlanta. I took the position that I was from Alabama, had been to Selma, and had participated in early organizing and protesting. I had been arrested and gone to jail for that and if local people wanted to march, I’m going to march with them.

Jerome asked, “Did you ask to be head of the line?” He said “No I did not. They drafted me.” I asked, “Did Martin Luther King draft you?” He said:

People like Andy Young because Dr. King was not there that day. They asked me to walk with Hosea because I don’t think they knew about the debate. We were in Atlanta; we stayed up most of that night arguing and debating why we shouldn’t or should; and I then jumped in the car with two other young people from the student non-violent coordinating committee. We got our sleeping bags and we drove to Selma. We got an hour or two of sleep in a so called “Freedom House.”

I got up the next morning, got dressed and went to the Brown Chapel Church and after the service, people started showing up for the march. I was wearing a black trench coat and Hosea was wearing a black trench coat.

I asked, “You had your backpack on or something?” He said “I was wearing a backpack.” I said, “You looked like one of the young people today.” He said, “Mine was not that fashionable …. But Hosea, he was fearless, fearless, fearless. He was strong, not intimidated and it was his mission, it was his calling to get out there and push and pull.” I asked, “Do you think that you arrived at a philosophy of provoking people to violence or you think that sort of happens and it kept happening or you think after a while it became a strategy?” Mr. Lewis said, “No, I don’t think it was a deliberate effort to provoke people to respond with violence but if people were going to be provoked or to respond in that matter, then it was going to help us make our point.”

My own involvement with the civil rights movement in July 1966 followed in time the events of 1963 and 1965 where civil rights marches had led to adoption of civil rights legislation. In June 1966, the Meredith March had come through Grenada, Mississippi and SCLC dropped off 12 organizers including Hosea Williams. They were trying to foment enough activity and response to it to get press coverage that would pressure Congress to enact the 1966 Civil Rights bill. (It would have required juries to be selected at random from voting lists.) In June 1966, Orison Marden, the new president of the ABA and my boss at White & Case, had arranged for me to go to Mississippi at White & Case expense. I spent four weeks full time in Grenada assisting Marion Wright and other NAACP Legal Defense lawyers who were supporting the civil rights demonstrators. Marden spent the summer getting an overwhelming vote from the ABA in support of the bill, but it never passed. During the Meredith March and for a period thereafter, the press focused rather on Stokely Carmichael and the “black power” movement—about which Stokely repeatedly articulated. Stokely at the age of 24 had brought his “slashing black style” as new chair of SNCC replacing the soft spoken John Lewis.

As we left Mr. Lewis in June 2014, I said to him that I felt “so privileged to have been able to participate even in the tiny sliver of time when I was involved,” and he replied that “every day I feel privileged to have participated.” He was very impressive in his humility. Jerome led Mr. Lewis, a staff member, and me in prayer before we took our leave. Mr. Lewis said that we should call upon him or his staff for any help they could give us.

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