... conversations with People at the Leading Edgesm

The Spirit of History

The Spirit of History leads ordinary people to do extraordinary things, according to John Lewis. He sees himself as an example of that. He grew up in rural Alabama where his parents and nine brothers and sisters worked a subsistence cotton farm. When he left Alabama as a teenager, he became one of the most courageous leaders of America?s Civil Rights Movement. An acknowledged hero, John Lewis has been Congressman for the Fifth District of Georgia, which includes Atlanta, since 1987.

Young John Lewis was one of the original members of the Nashville Student Movement and the first president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC.) He was arrested dozens of times in nonviolent demonstrations across the South, was on the first Freedom Ride, a leader of the 1963 March on Washington and he led the bloody Selma march which sealed passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. His recently published autobiography, Walking with the Wind, is a memoir of the Civil Rights Movement.

Now America is in the process of laying down the burden on race, Congressman Lewis believes. He sees the American South emerging as a model for the rest of the world. Instead of ending up like Bosnia or Northern Ireland or Lebanon, Mr. Lewis believes The Movement showed that violence is not able to stop nonviolence. Thousands of simple, ordinary people were the key. They didn't have resources. They followed the wisdom of an old African proverb which says, "When you pray, move your feet." In marches and sit-ins and stand-ins, protesters prayed with their feet. In so doing, they saved America's soul.

Congressman Lewis continues to believe in nonviolence. He continues to believe the Spirit of History calls people, as it called him. When that Spirit calls, he says, you have to follow. And you'd better be prepared. No one, he insists, can sit on the sidelines.

We all need reconciliation, says Mr. Lewis. Build people up instead of dividing them. Bull Connor (Birmingham's chief of police) and Sheriff Clark (in Selma) were not targets as individuals. They were victims of customs, traditions and an evil system that needed to be changed, with the same spark of divinity all people share. No one has to be a loser.

Today, Congressman Lewis is working quietly to bring people together in the U.S. Congress. He likes to say we all came to America in different ships, but now we're all in the same boat. He?s convinced we must find ways to use our resources for human needs, not missiles and guns. End the conflict, the violence, the division. Create a world community at peace with itself. He's sure it will take 'walking the walk' to get that done, not just 'talking the talk.' And John Lewis wrote the book on walking.

[This Program was recorded June 5, 1998, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]


John Lewis

    ... has been a United States Congressman representing the Fifth District in Georgia since 1987. One of the acknowledged heroes of the American Civil Rights Movement, Mr. Lewis began with the Nashville Student Movement, was president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a Freedom Rider and among the leaders of the 1963 March on Washington. He was arrested dozens of times in nonviolent demonstrations and led the bloody march at the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, which opened the way for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. His memoir of The Movement is called Walking with the Wind.



Conversation 1




John Lewis tells about being a young man in The Movement. He describes being lifted up by the Spirit of History which tracks people down, demands they act, requires they use their bodies as living witnesses to the truth. Lewis describes this Spirit still moving, bringing people together to create what he calls the beloved community -- a world community at peace with itself. He describes his experience with nonviolence and how going to jail liberated him.

Conversation 2




John Lewis tells the story of how he thought he was going to die on the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. He likens America to a house shaken but not destroyed by great challenges and explains why he believes we must find a way to end conflict, violence, and division. He tells stories of how the Civil Rights Movement brought people together, then suggests what we might learn from that experience. Lewis describes being a young person, seeing something he thought was wrong and acting to make it right. He describes the many forms courage takes. No ?bad guys? are needed, Lewis says, reconciliation is what we need, making sure there are no losers.

Conversation 3



Every human being, says Congressman Lewis, has a spark of divinity. He describes attempting to redeem people like Bull Connor (police chief in Birmingham) and Sheriff Clark (Selma,) victims of customs, of tradition, and the evil system of segregation and racial discrimination. Nonviolence is still a powerful way of life for Lewis who tells of the peace that came to him when he decided not to feel malice or anger toward such individuals. Known for his serious demeanor, Lewis explains what his serious face really means.

In Congress, Lewis is currently working to bridge differences between people and calls on young people to make some noise, agitate for the right things. He uses his own youth to describe how education must reach beyond the classroom, explaining how basic American values helped shape his ideas about building bridges of reconciliation.

Conversation 4




Lewis describes how he and others demonstrated with their bodies that violence cannot stop nonviolence. He tells how much progress he thinks we?ve made, why he thinks America is in the process of ?laying down the burden on race? and how he sees the American South emerging as a model for the rest of the world. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things is what changed America with the Civil Rights Movement, he believes, and tells how leaders also were led. Lewis applauds the young minister, Jim Lawson, who taught Nashville students the fundamentals of nonviolence.

Conversation 5




There are things much harder than marching, sitting in, going on Freedom Rides, facing billy clubs, bull whips, and tear gas, Lewis says, describing the challenges of educators and law enforcement officials. He offers some of his mother?s many mottoes for how to get through life well. He calls us all to be more humane, to share with the people of the world rather than spending limited resources on bombs, missiles, and guns. He calls us to celebrate our diversity, to travel and to learn to disagree without running off and creating chaos. Even though he can?t carry a tune, Lewis tells how music created a sense of power in the Movement.

Conversation 6




Engage life to overcome fear, says Congressman Lewis. He urges people not to fear others who are unlike them. He expresses his confidence that humans can -- and must -- make a great leap to learn to get along. He calls us all to step out in faith, keep moving, take others with us. That?s the path he believes we?re taking as a nation, as a people, and as a world community. John Lewis summarizes his own life?s journey and urges us all onward.


Related Links:

Walking with the Wind is published by Simon & Schuster .


During the 2008 American Presidential campaign, Congressman Lewis said of the McCain-Palin campaign "Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse."  For his honestly he was attacked by those candidates and their supporters.  We felt obligated to post a response.


Taylor Branch has written a thorough and beautiful accounting of the Civil Rights Movement in three volumes:  Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire and At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-1968. 


In a wide ranging discussion, one of the points that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. makes is how one of the outgrowths of this era, affirmative action, helped him become a tenured professor at Harvard University.

In her teaching and her poetry, Nikki Giovanni exposes and attacks the racism still afflicting America.

In our conversation with Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier we discuss the progress which was and was not made in civil rights in the U.S. during the last quarter of the 20th century.

Journalist David Halberstam covered the Civil Rights Movement for the Nashville Tennessean and later wrote The Children about the young people, including John Lewis, who changed the Movement and American history.

Though frequently overlooked, African-American women were the backbone of the Movement. Darlene Clark Hine (with co-author Kathleen Thompson) starts with the colonial era to provide a comprehensive history of those women in A Shining Thread of Hope.

Syracuse University historian Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn looks at what happened to the Civil Rights Movement after Dr. Kings assassination in Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution.

Barney Pityana, Hugh Masekela (both South Africans) and Gerry Adams (Irish) have each been deeply involved in their countries’ struggles for democracy and civil rights.

In John Brown, Abolitionist David Reynolds presents John Brown as a pivotal character in helping (forcing) America to live up to the oratory of the founding fathers and the promise of the Constitution.

For 30 years, the Rev. Joseph L. Roberts led Martin Luther King’s church (Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta). Day by day Dr. Roberts worked to support and sustain “the least of these” while holding the powerful to account.

David Shipler reports in The Working Poor: Invisible in America that Dr. King’s vision of economic justice has not yet been achieved in America. Jason DeParle examines the history of welfare and the effects of welfare reform in American Dream: Three Woman, Ten Kids and Welfare Reform.

Historian and novelist Richard Slotkin says that America needs a new organizing myth, one that must deal with racism and with violence.

In Democracy Matters Cornel West argues that by drawing on our Greek, Hebrew and African heritages we can build a better democracy

And, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.




The Commerce Club provided an lovely setting in which we were all inspired by John Lewis. We thank both the Club and those who shared with us there.

Louise Braverman at Simon & Schuster was extremely helpful in making arrangements. We are grateful for all of her efforts to assure our success.

Mostly, we thank John Lewis for being John Lewis and for having the character and intelligence to be where he needed to be when he needed to be there.



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