When civil rights icon John Lewis returned to Nashville this weekend, he was greeted just like he was more than 50 years ago – with a mug shot and an arrest record.
But this time, his record was bound for the city’s public library.
Officials in Tennessee’s capital city have unearthed never-before-published photos and records documenting Lewis’ arrests there decades ago, while he was leading an effort to desegregate the city’s lunch counters.
Nashville Mayor Megan Berry surprised Lewis with the records while he was on stage Saturday at the Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Magnet High School to receive a literary award for “March,” a three-part graphic novel about his life in the civil rights movement.
“I was surprised, and I almost cried. I held back tears, because I was so young,” Lewis, now 76 and long a U.S. congressman from Georgia, told reporters afterward. “I would love to have copies of them and place them in my Washington office, so when young people, especially children, come by, and even some of my colleagues, they will see what happened and be inspired to do something.”
As a child, Lewis was inspired by radio broadcasts of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. That eventually led him to co-found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and serve as its chairman. He was one of the organizers for the 1963 March on Washington.
The photos depict a scowling Lewis in his early 20s, wearing a tie in one photo and a long overcoat in another. The arrest records show he was booked at least three times from 1961 to 1963 on charges including disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and breach of the peace.
City officials plan to display copies of the records in the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Library, where all police trainees are required to attend a class.
“You got into some ‘good trouble’ in Nashville, and apparently 40-plus more times, and I hope these photos remind you of what you have done and the legacy you have left for us,” Barry told Lewis while showing him the records Saturday.
David Ewing, a local historian and lawyer, requested the records years ago but was told they did not exist. But he kept asking, and his prodding eventually led officials to find them deep in the city’s archives.
Lewis said he has been arrested 45 times for his activism – including five times since he was elected to Congress. But his first arrest came in Nashville.
“I’m probably going to be arrested again,” he said.