Congressman Lewis: A Profile in Courage

John Lewis knew his first steps into activism could have led to his death — but he took them anyway

As a sharecropper's son in rural Alabama, John Lewis saw racial injustice firsthand. He attended a segregated school, drank from the water fountains marked "colored" and watched family and friends suffer the every-day indignities of being African American in the South. But Lewis was not destined to go with the status quo. The young Lewis was willing to risk prison, or worse, to turn the tide of the injustices he saw all around him.

His activism started at age 19, when he was thrown in jail for leading a lunch counter sit-in. He went on to be arrested more than 40 times, becoming a key figure in nearly every pivotal event of the Civil Rights movement. In 1965, Alabama State Troopers fractured his skull as he kneeled to pray while leading a peaceful on the march from Selma to Montgomery that became known as Bloody Sunday. The televised violence shocked the nation: eight days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced voting law reform that eventually ensured millions of Americans would have the right to enter the voting booth.

We caught up with Congressman Lewis, 74, before and after the annual re-enactment of Bloody Sunday, which drew 10,000 marchers to Selma this year.

You were 23 when you organized and spoke at the 1963 March on Washington. Are you the only speaker still alive today? Yes, the last one. I feel very lucky and blessed that I'm still here. I feel I have an obligation to continue to tell the story—how it happened, why it happened. We can take a great deal of pride in where we've come, and also see where we need to continue.

What gave you the courage to lead that march across the bridge in Selma, in the face of violence? I thought I was going to die. I thought I saw death on that bridge. Even then I was not afraid.As a student in Nashville, I studied the ways of peace, love and nonviolence. My studies prepared me to never, ever be afraid, to hold onto my inner strength. My faith was my anchor. Some people may call it courage, that ability to withstand the pain, the disappointment, the violence. But it was very much in keeping with the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence to not to be afraid, to insist on what is fair and just.

How did you face such extreme violence without reacting, without fighting back? There is a spark of the divine in every human. You have to respect the dignity and worth of every human. When you do, you are not going to abuse that person—not even enemies. They may spit on you or call you the "N" word, or beat you, but in the end, you have to say, 'That person is my brother.' None of us looked forward to the pain or the suffering. It was just part of the price we had to pay to get a voting rights act passed.

Would you make a similar decision today? Yes. Since I've been in Congress, I've engaged in protests and have been arrested five times. There's always the possibility of being arrested again before I leave. And I have no plans to leave.

Did you ever dream that you'd live to see the election of the first black president, or become a member of Congress? No. If somebody had told me during the 1960s that I would be in Congress, I'd have said, 'You're crazy.' I didn't have any desire to be in an elected position. I wanted to be a minister. Then I met Rosa Parks, and at the age of 18, I met Martin Luther King Jr. It set me on a different path.

In your book Across That Bridge, you say that some call you too optimistic about change. How do you stay so positive? It is in keeping with the philosophy of nonviolence to be hopeful, to believe that change will come, and to never, ever give up. The struggle to redeem the soul of America is the struggle of a lifetime. More than one lifetime.

What challenges can we meet in the coming years? We still need to help leave our planet greener, cleaner and a little more peaceful for generations not yet born. Here in America, we must do what we can to bring about a nonviolent revolution, a revolution of values and ideas. We must make sure all our young people receive the best possible education. We must find a way to end hunger and inequality. And we need comprehensive immigration reform. The vote is precious. It is the most powerful tool in a democratic society and we must use it.

How can we inspire more Americans to be courageous? We can inspire a new generation by encouraging young people to study those individuals who paved the way—whether it's Gandhi or Thoreau or Martin Luther King Jr. When I was growing up, my great grandfather said, 'Don't get in the way. Don't get in trouble.' But I was inspired to get into necessary trouble. And that's what another generation must be inspired to do: to be brave.

How do you find common ground with other members of Congress? There are people with different values and commitments who come from different backgrounds. You're going to still respect them, and have a friendly discussion. In the end, we're all part of human family. Later this evening, I'll go out on the floor and vote. I'll see someone and ask, 'Brother, did you have a good weekend? We may never vote alike. But they are my brothers and my sisters and my friends. As Dr. King said, we have to learn to live together as brother or sisters, or we will perish as fools.

What advice would you give others who are facing situations that seem impossible and overwhelming? People must have the courage and will to confront problems, and not sweep them into some dark corner. People must be willing to organize and mobilize and educate those who need to be educated. No one can sit on the sidelines. We all must be engaged. Be part of a group or committee that is dedicated to change. If you see something that is not fair, you have an obligation to stand up and speak out.

What do you think stops people from taking action? People have been disappointed about the pace of change in recent years. They're afraid no one is listening. But people need to be told over and over again: they can make a difference.

Do you hear from people you've inspired? Yes. I hear from people all over the world. People stop me and tell me I'm their hero. It's good to hear, but I still have work to do.

You surprised some people recently, when a video of you dancing to Pharrell Williams' "Happy" went viral. I like music and I love that song. And now people are stopping me in airports and telling me "I love your 'Happy' dance."