Transcript: Rep. John Lewis 2006

Sadanand Mailliard: Congressman Lewis, it’s such a thrill. We’ve been just – everybody is so excited to see you.

John Lewis: Well, I’m delighted and very pleased and happy to see each and every one of you. I always look forward to the day that you come to Capitol Hill from your wonderful school to visit, so thank you very much for being here. Sorry that I’m running a little late, but I just got out of jail. Seven of us were arrested at the embassy of Sudan today, protesting what is going on there, and trying to sensitize and educate more American people around the world to put pressure on our government to do more. And the United Nations, and others really, to stop the killing, the mass murdering, the raping, and really put a mind to genocide.

Sadanand Mailliard: So, you guys ready with your questions? Let’s go.

Megan Mitchell: Hi, I’m Megan.

John Lewis: Hi Megan.

Megan Mitchell: After Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, you described yourself as “sleepwalking through the following weeks, wondering if you could ever put belief and faith and trust into someone again.” How did you recover from these two losses, and remain able to love and believe?

John Lewis: Well, after the assassination of Martin Luther King junior and Robert Kennedy I did go through a period of not knowing the direction to go. Whether I should continue to be involved in public life… But I had what I call “an executive session with myself.” Every now and then you should talk to yourself, but just don’t make it a habit of talking to yourself. And I said I’m going to become bitter, I’m not going to hate, and I’m not going to get lost in the sea of despair. I will keep the faith and keep moving. Not too many days go by that I don’t think of Martin Luther King junior and Robert Kennedy, and on many occasions when I’m speaking or trying to make a decision, I will say to myself “what would doctor King, what would Robert Kennedy say? What would Martin Luther King or Robert Kennedy do?”

Nina Castañon: Good afternoon, Mister Lewis.

John Lewis: Good afternoon.

Nina Castañon: I’m Nina.

John Lewis: Hi Nina.

Nina Castañon: You speak so movingly about “the beloved society.” These days with all the focus on terrorism, do you feel that we are moving farther away from this goal?

John Lewis: Sometimes, I wonder whether we are moving away from… you call it the storm? What do you call it?

Nina Castañon: The beloved society.

John Lewis: The beloved society. Sometimes I feel that we’re moving closer to the beloved society, to the beloved community, and sometimes I feel like we’re standing still, or maybe moving backward. There’s been so much teaching and preaching and announcement of the need to the division, the separation of people because of their color, their race, their nationality, maybe because of the part of the world that certain people, certain individuals come from, and that’s not helpful that leads to the creation of the beloved community, a beloved society. And every so often, I think we have to be reminded that we must – in spite of violence, conflict, in spite of terrorism – we must continue to be consistent and persistent in moving toward the beloved society.

Nina Castañon: Do you think that we can persist through even with feelings now brought up by the war on terrorism?

John Lewis: Well, I think we have to. We have to persist. We have to not just persist, but we have to do what we used to call in the movement, we have to insist. We have to get out front and not wait for our government, or not wait for the governments of the world. But the people must do it, and say we’re going to learn to live together as brothers and sisters, as doctor King would say, or we will perish as fools. And come to the conclusion that we are one people; we’re one family, or what I like to call one house, one world. We have to, we don’t have any choice. Gandhi put it one way; he said its nonviolence or nonexistence. Doctor King said we must learn to live together as brothers and sisters, or we will perish as fools.

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure being in Concord, Mass, at Walden Pond, for the dedication of a path in honor of Thoreau. …Some of you young people know Don Henley, lead singer of The Eagles? For sixteen years, he’d been trying to create this path in honor of Thoreau, and so he dedicated this path yesterday – there’s a lot of rain in New England, and it was raining, but hundreds of young people, hundreds of students – elementary school students, middle school, high school students, and community people from all over New England showed up to dedicate this path. A path of peace. A path that was there that the people must insist they were going to live in a world at peace with itself made no difference what our government tried to do.

Ian Rusconi: I’m Ian

John Lewis: Yes, how are you doing?

Ian Rusconi: I’m fine, how are you?

John Lewis: Fine, thank you.

Ian Rusconi: Given the complicated and dangerous situation in Iraq, what can the United States and other concerned nations do now to improve things?

John Lewis: Well more than anything else, we have to say – as a nation and as a people along with the community of nations – we’ve got to lower the temperature, find a way to end the violence, and probably we have to find a way to start coming home. Bringing our young men and our young women home. Because I think our very presence there sort of sends a message that we’re going to be there for a while, and people see us as… not as liberators, as some people had predicted that we would be seen as liberators, but they see us now as occupying forces, really. We’ve got to find a way to get out, and leave it up to the people there to control their own destiny.

Prabha Sharon: Hi, I’m Prabha.

John Lewis: Hi, how are you doing, Prabha?

Prabha Sharon: As a well known and respected congressman, do you still feel connected to the hopes of the boy carrying the chickens in Alabama?

John Lewis: Very much so. As a member of Congress in Washington now for almost twenty years, I cannot forget my boyhood, my childhood, growing up there, caring for the chickens. And in my office and in my house here, in my office in Atlanta, in my house in Atlanta, I have chickens there to remind me. There’s pictures and drawings of chickens. There’s no way that I can forget the hopes and dreams and aspirations of people really, in spite of being in congress.

One of the things that I would love to have an opportunity to do, maybe when we get out of here for a break is to go back and visit places. Not just in Alabama, but in Mississippi, in South Georgia, and in other parts of the south, because there are still people left out and left behind.

Sadanand Mailliard: Why don’t you tell him where you’re from.

Prabha Sharon: I’m from India.

John Lewis: From India? I visit India on one occasion, just for like, two days. I went there for Mother Teresa’s funeral, with misses Clinton. She had me go as one of her guests.

Prabha Sharon: I was six, so I didn’t know her

John Lewis: No, you didn’t. But I hope to go back some time; it’s been a much longer period of time. Gandhi has so much influence on the civil rights movement, but on many of us, really. Yes. Matter of fact, his grandson participated in the meeting with us, yesterday, outside of Boston.

Madeline Weston-Miles: When has your belief in non-violence been tested the most, and how did you respond?

John Lewis: I think my belief in non-violence was tested the most in 1961, forty-five years ago during the freedom ride, when we were met by an angry mob at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery, and beaten and left lying, bloody and unconscious in a pool of blood. I thought I was going to die. I didn’t strike back after I became conscious; I just wanted to know the wellbeing of the people around me.

The second time I think it was tested was on the march from Selma to Montgomery, on Bloody Sunday. But I didn’t become bitter or hostile. I didn’t get angry, and I don’t have any hate. I will say, in spite of the violence heaped on me in ’61, in ’65, I don’t have malice or ill feeling toward anybody.

Naomi Magid: Hi, I’m Naomi.

John Lewis: Hi Naomi.

Naomi Magid: I know your generation had a lot of passion about the issues of that time, and I was wondering, what kind of issues today do you think we need to focus on more?

John Lewis: Well, I think we need to focus as a society and as a people on the issue of there’s still too much violence in our society. We need to end the conflicts around the world. Is it possible for people to live together as brothers and sisters, as members of the human family, and put down the instruments and tools of violence and war? Or, is it possible for a great nation such as America and some other powerful countries in the world to say that we’re going to do away with war, and war would no longer be a tool of our foreign policy. We need to see that people are fair. There’s still too many starving people in our society.

We need to protect the environment. A lot of the weather changes that we have witnessed, and whether it’s New England, or whether it’s Katrina, in places around the world today, it’s because of what we’re doing to the environment. And we need to save this little planet, save this little piece of real estate that we call the Earth, save it for generations yet unborn, and we’re not being good stewards of the planet. It’s not ours to whore and to rape and abuse. We need to hold and use what we need and save it, make it a little greener, little cleaner and a little more peaceful for unborn generations.

John-Nuri Vissell: Hi, I’m John.

John Lewis: Hi John. That’s easier for me.

John-Nuri Vissell: What do you say to those in Congress who argue against social programs as undermining people’s willingness to take care of themselves?

John Lewis: Well, we could go back to the great book, to the scripture, or to the great religions of the world. We are… We are more than lucky; we are blessed as members of the human family. So we have an obligation – a moral obligation – to look out for those, the most vulnerable segment of our society. To look out for the children, to look out for our elderly, to look out for the people in need, look out for those at the very bottom, I think that’s the least that society could do. I’ve said to my colleagues in the Congress, and people in this administration that if we do not do what is right about the most vulnerable segment of society, I do not think that the spirit of history will be kind to us.

John-Nuri Vissell: Thank you.

John Lewis: Thank you.

Seychelle deVries: I’m Seychelle.

John Lewis: Hi.

Seychelle deVries: If another country is acting violently and oppressively against it’s people, do we as conscientious world citizens have a responsibility to get involved in the affairs of those nations? And is there a balance that we need to keep between national sovereignty, and addressing these human rights issues?

John Lewis: I think there is a need. I think there is a need for us to find some balance. But more and more as we live on this little planet, when someone is hurting, say in Sudan, or hurting in any part of the world, people suffering, in pain, their basic civil rights, or human rights rather, are being violated or being denied, we have an obligation to speak up, to speak out, and to use resources, influence, to try to get the community of nations to send something, to do something.

Back in 1992, during the crisis of Somalia – this is between the time of the election of President Clinton, but before he took office – I led a delegation to Somalia of both democrats and republicans, and I saw hundreds and thousands of people just dying, starving to death. And I saw the conflict that was going on. I came back, I made a report to President Bush, Bush one, President Bush one, and to president-elect Clinton, and said “you have to do something.” We had to do something, we had to act. And the same thing in Sudan; we cannot stand by and see a modern day holocaust take place, cannot stand by and see genocide. You have to speak up, you have to act. But you must find a balance.

I’m not suggesting that we do what we did, what we’re doing in Iraq, that we use this pre-emptive policy, I happen to think the war there was wrong. The war… I think, we… In having the business intervene in, I think we were misled under the guise that some high, or Sadam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and that he was harboring terrorists and that type of thing. But in my own mind, I am convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that in this case, the president, the president-elect, the national security director at the time Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of defense designated, and the vice-president even before they took office had made a decision to have a war. We may never know that. One day, I think it will all come out. I think they were hell-bent to go to war.

Yes ma’am?

Andrea Schmitt: Hi, I’m Andrea. Nice to meet you.

John Lewis: Hi, how you doing.

Andrea Schmitt: Good. I was wondering if there were any situations, such as genocide, where nonviolence may be an impractical response, and what are the limitations to the nonviolent approach to life, and how do you deal with them?

John Lewis: I happen to believe that the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolent action is one of those immutable principles that you cannot deviate from the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. If you want a world at peace with itself, if you want the beloved community, if that is the goal, if that is the end, then the way must be one of love, and one of nonviolence. Some place along the way, I think some great country, some powerful country such as America, or some other force must come along and say, “enough is enough. We’re not going down that road. We’re going to teach people a different way.” And just get out there. Believe it and live it. That is suggesting in a sense that you believe that nonviolence, that the philosophy, the discipline is the means, and the end is somewhat caught up in the means, or the means is caught up in the end, and you cannot separate it.

When you accept nonviolence as a technique, as a tactic, you become like a faucet. You can turn it on, and you can turn it off. That’s why during the ‘60’s, many of us accepted nonviolence as a way of life, as a way of living.

Andrea Schmitt: Can you speak a little bit more about… So, do you think nonviolence is an appropriate response in every situation? Even if genocide?

John Lewis: Well, I think some place along the way, people have to be prepared to say, “if I’m going to go down that path, if I’m going to believe in nonviolence, you have to believe in it in an absolute fashion.” You cannot say, “well I’m going to use nonviolence here, and I’m not going to use it there.” What we did today was nonviolent protests. It had seven members of Congress. A few days ago, I think it was six, saying “we’re prepared to get arrested, go to jail, stay in jail a little while, be handcuffed and all of that.” Jail is not a pleasant place to go and be denied all of your freedom. But for us, it’s pretty easy, pretty simple. But for a lot of people when they are suffering, it’s much greater. So we use whatever we can, whatever nonviolent means and techniques and tactics and the philosophy to dramatize the need to do something.

Now, a situation might come along and say, well, you’ve never been in that situation. What will you do?

Andrea Schmitt: What will I do?

John Lewis: No, I’m saying, I’m asking the question myself I guess. What would I do?

I happen to believe in nonviolence as a way of life, as a way of living. I guess you would in a sense call me a pacifist. I don’t vote for appropriation bills for defense anymore. If I’m here another ten years or fifteen years, I’ve been here almost twenty years. But I made a commitment to myself that I will not vote for another dime, another penny to go to war. So I introduced legislation some time ago for those people who do not want to see their tax money used for bombs and missiles and guns, we all should pay our fair share, pay our taxes, but it could be put in a peace fund. And those resources could be used for humanitarian reasons. To help rebuild New Orleans. Help starving and hungry people around the world. Find a cure to heart disease or AIDS or cancer, or whatever. That’s what the funds could be used for. Not to build more bombs, not to build more missiles and guns, we have enough bombs and missiles and guns to destroy the planet.

Andrea Schmitt: Thank you.

John Lewis: Thank you.

Kristin Alfred Macintosh: Unfortunately, we only have this room until two, and the other group is outside.

John Lewis: Okay.

Sadanand Mailliard: So let’s go to the closer

Alyssa deBenedetti: So we have – my name is Alyssa, hi – we have a general closer question that we ask to all of our interviewees, and it’s: what is the most important piece of advice that you can give us, with all of your life experience?

John Lewis: Well, let me just try it like this for a moment. When I was growing up outside of Troy, Alabama, many, many years ago when I had all my hair and was a few pounds lighter, I would go downtown to the little town Troy, to the theatres. All of us little black children had to go upstairs to the balcony, and all the little white children went downstairs to the first floor. I would see the signs that said “white” and “colored.” White men, colored men. White women, colored women. White waiting, colored waiting. I would ask my mother, ask my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, “why segregation? Why racial discrimination?” And they would say “that’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.” But as a fifteen year old child in 1955, I heard about Rosa Parks. I heard the words of Martin Luther King junior on the old radio. In 1957 I met Rosa Parks. In 1958, I met doctor King. Changed my life. I got in the way. I got in trouble. It was good trouble, it was necessary trouble.

My advice to you would be very simple. When you see something that is not right, when people have been put down because of their race or their color or their nationality, or whatever the reason, you must speak up. You must speak out. You must get in the way. You will be the leaders of the 21st century. And you have an obligation and a mandate to lead our world community to a much higher level. You can do it, and you must do it. Just get in the way. Get in trouble; let it be good trouble, necessary trouble.