When Rep. John Lewis died on July 17 at age 80, the country, in the midst of several crises, came to a halt to reflect on a leader who never stopped fighting for racial justice.
Known for his direct action in movements like the sit-ins at Nashville lunch counters and the Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama aimed at registering Black voters, Lewis inspired countless people. As former President Barack Obama said, “He believed that in all of us, there exists the capacity for great courage, a longing to do what’s right, a willingness to love all people, and to extend to them their God-given rights to dignity and respect.”
Lewis had a particular influence on Bernard Lafayette, a civil rights leader who met Lewis in 1958 when they were roommates together in college. They became friends based on their shared experiences with Jim Crow and would strengthen their bond through the Freedom Rides, an activist effort in the early 1960s that sought to desegregate buses in the South. According to Lafayette, who laid the groundwork for activism in Selma, Lewis possessed a “comeback spirit” — the kind of energy that would never recoil in the face of injustice. “If you would push him back, he would come back,” Lafayette said.
I spoke to Lafayette as he and the country reel from the loss of Lewis and other civil rights leaders, including C.T. Vivian and Charles Evers, and as a new generation of leaders are demanding that racist systems be dismantled. Lafayette talked to me about his friendship with Lewis and why the late leader never made the fight for justice about himself. Our conversation, which has been condensed for clarity, also touched on the pursuit of nonviolence — even when one’s life is at risk — and how that relates to the movement today.
Tell me about your friendship with John Lewis. How did it start and what kept the two of you together for so many years?
We met as students at the American Baptist College in Nashville in 1958. He was in the year ahead of me. We were roommates, and he tutored me because he had already taken the courses that I was enrolled in. I was taking advantage. We were both from the South, and we had a lot of experiences with segregation and discrimination when we were growing up, like when John couldn’t get a library card when he was younger, and how if I was catching a streetcar with my grandmother, we’d have to sit in the back. We would talk about all of this all the time. We both shared the idea of doing something about it and how to change things.
It sounds like Lewis was already a mentor to you at that young age. How else did he influence you in school?
He is the one that persuaded me to go to workshops on nonviolence that were conducted by James Lawson Jr. I had to be persuaded because I was so busy. I didn’t have time! But once I went, I got really excited about it. The workshops are what prepared us for the movement. We were focused on lunch counters. Lawson conducted the workshops, and in less than three months, we desegregated the lunch counters in Nashville by using nonviolent tactics [like sitting quietly and patiently waiting to be served and having back-ups once the first group of demonstrators were arrested]. C.T. Vivian was there and Diane Nash and Jim Bevel and a lot of people all participated in making that happen.
The Christmas of 1960, before the Freedom Rides started, John Lewis and I had decided to desegregate the Greyhound bus. We sat in the front seats of the bus and refused to leave when the driver tried to force us off. We rode all the way down to Troy, Alabama, where John got off. And then I rode down to Florida. So we desegregated the buses at that time — not completely — but just the two of us.
And how did that experience lead you and John Lewis to participate in the Freedom Rides?
Once the Freedom Rides were announced in May 1961, John applied and I applied too, but I was not 21 so I couldn’t go because you needed parental permission. When I called my father and asked him, he said, “I’m not gonna sign your death warrant.”
The Freedom Rides were halted because of the violence — the burning of the buses in Anniston, Alabama, and because of evil people in Birmingham. They stopped the Freedom Rides because people had been promised protection, but they didn’t get any.
However, we decided to continue the Freedom Rides between late May and September of 1961. So I didn’t need parental permission then [because I was of age].
John Lewis had the first group going to Birmingham, to continue to ride. And we had a backup group that I led after John Lewis got arrested in Birmingham. In Montgomery, we were met by mob violence there. At that point, we decided to regroup, bring other people on, and train them to get them ready to continue the Freedom Rides. We learned this strategy of having back-up groups of people in the workshops. The training that Lawson gave made all the difference in the world.
In thinking back to how John Lewis convinced you to join the workshops and take part in the Freedom Rides, what do you believe that says about his character?
Well, he was the president of his class at American Baptist College in Nashville. And then, the next year he was the president of the student body. John Lewis was not just a student, like many of the students at the school. They were leaders in their communities and some were pastors of churches or preparing to be pastors of churches.
It was no coincidence that he ended up being the chairman of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He had the leadership qualities. What gave us the confidence that he could do that was he made us believe things could change if we did not give up. So the main thing that characterized John Lewis is he is a person who did not believe in giving up.
He had what you call a “comeback spirit.” If you would push him back, he would come back. He thought that was the only way you could move forward — you would come back.
Can you talk about this idea of the “comeback spirit” from your experience? What was it like for you to be so close to death so many times when it came to the lunch counter sit-ins or with the times that you desegregated the buses? How did you keep going when you knew you could lose your life to violence?
I can best explain this through my experiences in Selma. I was sent to Selma, Alabama, by SNCC as the director of the Alabama voter registration project when nobody else would go. Two teams of SNCC workers had already gone down to Selma, and when they came back they told the head of SNCC that nothing could be done there — and these were people who had been involved in sit-ins and Freedom Rides. Both teams had the same reasons why nothing could be done: The white people were too mean and the Black people were too afraid, they said.
I had just gotten off the Freedom Rides, and I wanted to be director of my own project. They told me they didn’t have any more assignments. But on a map that was on the blackboard, they had an “X” through Alabama — they weren’t going to go down there. And I said, “Well, what about this place here? And they said, “Well, if you want to take a look at it.” So I said, “I’ll take it if nobody else wants to.” From there, I began to do my research. I studied the White Citizens’ Council and the Ku Klux Klan. I wanted to be fully aware of those kinds of things.
By this time, they had already had the Montgomery movement in Alabama, the Birmingham movement — so I kept asking myself, how is it that folks in Selma are so mean? What can be meaner than the other places where they put dogs on people and beat them up and throw them in jail?
So when I went into Selma in the fall of 1962, I started learning a lot of things firsthand. And to answer your question, there was one night in particular in 1963 that can show you how we stood up against the violence that existed. That night I drove up to my apartment building. There was a car out in front that looked like it was disabled since the hood was up.
There were two white people there, one in the driver’s seat and the other under the hood of the car. The one under the hood came over to me and asked how much I would charge to give them a push. I said I wouldn’t charge anything and quickly got ready to give them a push. But first I asked him if the car bumpers matched — they had to match or otherwise the bumpers would lock. He suggested I take a look, so I bent down.
When I did, this fella clobbered me and knocked me down in the middle of the street. I got up, and I looked at him. And then he hit me again in the head. And then the third time, he jumped up in the air and hit me in the middle of my head. I went straight down to the ground. Every time he hit me, I fell. But I got back up and looked at him.
I had been trained in nonviolence so this was the expected response. He started shaking because he was a huge guy and he should have knocked me out during the first go-around. He started backing up, and I realized the instrument he had in his hand was a gun. He was going to shoot me. I turned around and called my neighbor who was upstairs so somebody could witness this murder about to take place.
He was a light-skinned Black person so we called him “Red.” I yelled out over the banister, “Red!” Red!” He came out onto the porch upstairs with a rifle. He had been to Korea; he was a marksman. He started aiming at this guy, and I blocked him. I turned my back on the fella who had a gun on me and faced Red. I held up my hands and told Red, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” Red was trying to get a beam on him and trying to go around me. I wouldn’t let him. I was protecting the guy’s life who was trying to kill me.
In nonviolence, what you do is always try to find a nonviolent way to solve the problem, even when your life is at stake. But, the psychology of it is this: Does it make sense for a guy to shoot you in the back when you are trying to block someone from killing him? You see, that psychology? We were taught to take steps that help you reach the goal you’re trying to reach. And the goal I was trying to reach was to stop people from shooting each other — all people. This is part of how I laid the groundwork for the Selma movement.
Wow, that is quite the psychology and strategy. In thinking about the protest and desegregation tactics that you employed back then, how do they connect to what you’re seeing today with Black Lives Matter?
I’ve been doing a lot of training with young leaders because we have to have a strategy when it comes to nonviolence. You don’t just be nonviolent and march. For example, what you want to do is think about how you can win people over to support your movement. You have to constantly recruit people. You can’t just go with the ones you have. And you constantly train people. Many people don’t know that a lot of the marshals of the Selma march were actually gang members from the West Side of Chicago, the Vice Lords. I trained them in Chicago to come down and participate, so when the movement started in Chicago, they would have a meaningful role to play.
Do you think that what’s happening across America today — that more people are being recruited into the larger movement — is working to bring about change?
Yes. I’ve been very excited about the large number of young people who have come out. I also feel very excited about the young ladies taking leadership roles in these different groups that are coming together. The fact that they are staying in the movement — that’s the whole idea, you can’t just have one or two marches. You have to have an ongoing march.
And when you look at it, people all around the world, my goodness! That is incredible. When we have that kind of traction, of young leaders from around the world, that’s good. So even though they are saying, “Black Lives Matter,” they are also saying “All Black Lives Matter.” That is very inclusive. I like that very much and feel that things are going to change because the people have changed. Young people are not smiling anymore. They’re very vocal. You have to make sure that those who participate have the training in nonviolence. That’s how you win more people over.
What’s one thing you’d like to see today’s movement prioritize?
I’d like to see more participation in the election and voting among young people because that can really make the difference and their voices can be heard. Not just on the radio, TV, and in the streets. Their voices must be heard in our system of government, in the legislature. I want to see more young people participating in voting. My suggestion is that you have a youth legislature ages 12 to 17. These legislators could be elected by their fellow youth in every district. It’s only a matter of time before they turn 18, so these groups can give young people a chance to practice voting, running for office, and being legislators. And the rest of the people involved can see who can be the best leaders of the future.
To bring us back to your friend John Lewis, and in light of the ongoing protests today, what part of his legacy stands out to you as essential to moving forward?
Everyone should first of all recognize that John Lewis started at an early age, and he continued. He was a person who cared about everybody — it wasn’t about John Lewis. That’s why he put his life on the line many times, because he cared about people. He was not afraid of death. He was afraid about the conditions that existed, unjust conditions faced by masses of people, especially the young people.
When we think about worth — how much you are worth — people think about money. But John Lewis thought about how valuable he would be to other people. That was his worth.