WASHINGTON — John Lewis was the 23-year-old son of Alabama sharecroppers and already a veteran of the civil rights movement when he came to the capital 50 years ago this month to deliver a fiery call for justice on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Lewis’ urgent cry — “We want our freedom, and we want it now!” — was eclipsed on the steps that day by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. But two years later, after Alabama State Police officers beat him nearly unconscious while he led a march in Selma, he was back in Washington to witness President Lyndon B. Johnson sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Today Lewis is a congressman from Georgia and the sole surviving speaker from the March on Washington in August 1963. His history makes him the closest thing to a moral voice in the divided Congress. At 73, he is still battling a half-century later.
With the Voting Rights Act in jeopardy now that the Supreme Court has invalidated one of its central provisions, Lewis, a Democrat, is fighting an uphill battle to reauthorize it. He is using his stature as a civil rights icon to prod colleagues like the Republican leader, Eric Cantor, to get on board. He also has met with the mother of Trayvon Martin and compared his shooting to the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till.
Lewis has an answer for those who say the election of a black president was a fulfillment of King’s dream: It was only “a down payment,” he said in an interview.
“There’s a lot of pain, a lot of hurt in America,” Lewis said in his office on Capitol Hill, which resembles a museum with wall-to-wall black-and-white photographs of the civil rights movement. Current events, he said, “remind us of our dark past.”
But Lewis, a longtime practitioner of civil disobedience (he has been arrested four times since joining Congress), also is encouraged. He said he found it gratifying to see peaceful throngs “protesting in a nonviolent fashion” after George Zimmerman was acquitted in Martin’s killing. Last week, he created a minor dust-up by telling Britain’s Guardian newspaper that Edward J. Snowden, the national security contractor who leaked classified documents, could argue that he was “appealing to a higher law,” but later condemned the leaks.
Now Lewis is introducing himself to a new generation by telling the story of his life as a Freedom Rider in “March,” a graphic novel that he wrote with a young aide, Andrew Aydin. The book, released this week, is modeled on a 1958 comic about King, which inspired early sit-ins.
Lewis remains a link to that past. At a National Urban League convention in Philadelphia last month, he was on fire as he told the crowd how his parents reacted when he asked about colored-only signs a lifetime ago in the Deep South.
“They would say, ‘That’s the way it is, don’t get in the way, don’t get in trouble,’” Lewis thundered in a preacher’s cadence. “But one day, I was inspired to get in the way, to get in trouble. And for more than 50 years, I’ve been getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble! And it’s time for all of us to get in trouble again!”
Last month, the congressman made a splash at Comic-Con in San Diego, where Lou Ferrigno, the original Incredible Hulk, was among the fans who lined up to see him. But it was serious business, a way for him to reach young people, Lewis said, and fulfill his duty to “bear witness.”
Each year, Lewis leads an emotional re-enactment in Selma of the “Bloody Sunday” march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the brutal police response horrified the nation.
Cantor participated this year, bringing his college-age son, and said he came away “very moved” - a sentiment that Lewis will play on during negotiations over a new bill.
“John is what I call a gentle spirit,” said Roy Barnes, a former Georgia governor, recalling a visit by Lewis in 2001 when he was wrestling with removing the Confederate emblem from the state flag.
“He said, ‘Right before I lost consciousness, I looked up and saw an Alabama state trooper beating me on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and all I could see was a confederate flag on his helmet,’” Barnes recalled. “He said, ‘I want you to remember that.’”
At the Urban League conference, a pantheon of civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, mingled backstage, but all eyes were on Lewis. Convention workers asked for pictures. Benjamin Crump, the Martin family lawyer, clutched a copy of “March,” hoping for an autograph. Strangers asked for hugs.
It is often this way for Lewis. He seems sheepish about the attention, and his speeches hint at survivor’s guilt. “All I did was give a little blood on that bridge,” he often says. Pointing to old photos, he refers to himself as “young John Lewis,” as if he were seeing someone else.
It is a long way from dusty Troy, Ala., where Lewis, one of 10 children, picked cotton and preached the Gospel to his chickens. His life took a turn when, at 18, he wrote to King. Lewis was studying at a Baptist seminary in Nashville, Tenn., but was thinking about trying to integrate his hometown college, Troy State, now Troy University. King sent bus fare for Lewis to meet him in nearby Montgomery.
His parents, he has written, were “deathly afraid” that his integration dream would bring the family harm. So he returned to Nashville, where he organized lunch counter sit-ins, got arrested and met a theologian, Jim Lawson, whose teachings about Gandhian nonviolence had a profound effect on him. In his quest to build what King called “the beloved community” - a world without poverty, racism or war - Lewis routinely votes against military spending.
“For most of us, nonviolence was a tool we used to achieve an end,” said another movement veteran, Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina. “John Lewis internalized that.”
In 1963, as the new chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis helped organize the Washington march. His prepared remarks were so bold - he branded President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights efforts “too little, too late” - that older leaders persuaded him to tone them down.
He went on to settle in Atlanta, won a seat on the City Council, and in 1986 challenged Julian Bond, a state lawmaker and a close friend from their movement days, for Congress.
Bond, handsome and erudite, was the favorite, but Lewis, with a speaking style that some describe as an impediment, fought hard and brought up Bond’s refusal to take a drug test. Bond later became chairman of the NAACP. It took years for them to repair the breach.
“He did what it took to win,” Bond said, “as you would expect a hard-knuckled politician to do.”
On Capitol Hill, Lewis and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., recently testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the voting bill. “It’s hard to look John Lewis in the eye and say, ‘We don’t need this,’” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the committee chairman.
On Aug. 24, at an anniversary march on Washington, Lewis will speak again at the Lincoln Memorial. He goes there every so often to reflect. A few weeks ago, he walked there alone from the Capitol, wearing a ballcap and workout clothes. It was peaceful. No one recognized him.