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Rep. John Lewis on morality and leadership

Remembering Rep. John Lewis: A Civil Rights icon’s words to Stanford students

Rep. John Lewis, who died July 17, 2020, was interviewed in April 2019 for a Stanford Medicine course on leadership and finding moral identity.

When I met U.S. Rep. John Lewis in his Washington congressional office last year, it was a typical chaotic, frenetic Capitol Hill day: Phones ringing, a buzzer signaling a floor vote, a reporter being ushered in as visitors were ushered out.

Yet, when we sat down in the Civil Rights icon's inner sanctum, the room became stately, peaceful and purposeful, as if his mere presence was enough to muffle the noise.

I interviewed Lewis, who died on July 17 at age 80, for a Stanford School of Medicine course on leadership and developing a moral identity. My part in the course, a brainchild of Dean Winslow, MD, is to interview notable individuals and leaders about how they faced ethical and moral choices.

I was honored to be in the presence of Lewis, who represented Georgia's fifth district for 33 years. He spoke with humility and grace about facing down hatred and violence with nonviolence, love and peaceful protest during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

This Q&A is condensed and edited from our conversation.

What was it about the philosophy of nonviolence that was so striking to you?

The philosophy of nonviolence became, for me, a way of life, a way of living, the way of love: to have the ability, the capacity not to hate, but to just love everybody. On one occasion, I heard Dr. King say in a subtle, playful manner, "Just love everybody. Love the hell out of everybody." It became part of me.

When you first saw the reality of segregation as a child in the small town of Troy, Alabama, not far from the farm where you grew up, did you understand it?

I understood very well. The signs said, "White waiting. Colored waiting. White men. Colored men. White women. Colored women." It just left a bad taste for me.

Down in the little town of Troy, in a drugstore, you see a fountain. African-American young people and children could not come to that fountain and get something to drink, to order a soda or ice cream cone. ...

Hearing Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. when I was 15 gave me this sense of determination that I could do something, that I could make a contribution.

You sat down at a lunch counter in Nashville when you were a student at Fisk University. The waitress ... poured disinfectant on you and a pitcher of water on your food. Every instinct would be to strike back. How did you not?

We were taught not to strike back. ... We studied. We had role playing. We had social drama. We were committed to the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence as a way of life, as a way of living.

We didn't want to do anything to harm the movement.

You've written that you were prepared to die during the Freedom Rides and sit-ins. How does one prepare for that?

As a group of students, we signed wills. We knew going some places, it could mean death ... but the cause was so precious. It was so necessary.

We had this philosophy -- a belief, what we called the Beloved Community -- to redeem the soul of America. It was this whole idea: If it'd take some of our blood to help save America, to help make our country and our community better, we were prepared.

Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis, who died July 17, 2020, was interviewed in April 2019 for a Stanford School of Medicine course on leadership and finding one's moral identity.

Take us to Selma, Alabama, March 7, 1965. Six hundred Civil Rights marchers heading out east on Route 80. You reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge and an army of state and local police. What happened?

I was leading that march with a young man by the name of Hosea Williams from Dr. King's organization.

The major of the Alabama state troopers spoke up: "I'm Major John Cloud of the Alabama state troopers. This is an unlawful march. You will not be allowed to continue. I give you three minutes to disperse, return to your homes or to your church."

Hosea Williams said, "Major, give us a moment to kneel and pray."

Again, he said, "Troopers, advance."

I said, "Major, may I have a word?"

He said, "There will be no word."

We saw the troopers putting on gas masks. They came toward us, beating us with nightsticks and trampling us with horses, releasing the tear gas.

I was the first person to be hit. I remember being knocked down. My legs went from under me, and I was hit in the head. All these many years later, I do recall being taken back to the church that we had left from. I thought I was going to die. I had a concussion. ... I do recall someone at the church asking me to say something.

The church was full to capacity -- hundreds and hundreds of people outside trying to get in. I stood up and said something like, "I don't understand it, how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam and cannot send troops to Selma, Alabama, to protect us, who only desire to register to vote."

What was the impact of that event?

That march ... had a profound impact on the psyche of America. Some of the [television] networks interrupted their programming and went straight to Alabama, straight to Selma.

People couldn't believe it that, at the heart of the Deep South in America, people were being beaten, trampled by horses, and tear gassed for trying to register to vote. ... [Sen. Ralph Yarborough] from the state of Texas took to the U.S. Senate floor ... and said, "Shame on you, [Alabama Gov.] George Wallace. Shame on you." It changed America forever.

You went back to the library in Troy, where you were denied a library card as a child. They gave you one and apologized. Are apologies significant?

An apology is significant. It has a cleansing effect, a cleansing impact. On the Freedom Rides in May of 1961 when I was 21 years old, I was beaten and left bloody with my white seatmate at the Greyhound bus station, Rock Hill, South Carolina.

After I'd been elected to Congress, one member of the Ku Klux Klan came to my office in Washington. He said, "Mr. Lewis, I'm one of the people that beat you in Rock Hill, South Carolina, at the Greyhound bus station. Will you forgive me?"

He was in his 70s. His son came with him. ... They both started crying. They hugged me. I hugged them back. We cried together.

What does "keep your eyes on the prize" mean today?

Whatever you do, never give up. Never give in. Never lose this sense of hope that we can all make our country a better place for all of our citizens.

Paul Costello facilitates Med 245: Leadership in Medicine: Developing your Moral Identity with School of Medicine faculty Dean Winslow, MD, Lars Osterberg, MD, Kate Luenprakansit, MD, and teaching assistant and medical student Samvel Gyurdzhyan.

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