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If you like John Lewis's story, you might also like:
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Ernest J. Gaines,
Daniel Inouye,
Frank M. Johnson,
James Earl Jones,
B.B. King,
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The Road to Civil Rights
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John Lewis
John Lewis
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John Lewis Interview

Champion of Civil Rights

June 10, 2004
Chicago, Illinois

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  John Lewis

What was it like growing up in rural Alabama when you were a kid in the 1940s and '50s?

John Lewis: It was very hard and very difficult growing up in rural Alabama during the '40s and the '50s. I grew up on a farm in a family of ten children, a wonderful mother, wonderful father, wonderful grandparents and great-grandparents.

I grew up very poor but in 1944, when I was four years old -- and I do remember when I was four -- my father had saved $300, and with the $300 a guy gave him 110 acres of land, and on this land we raised a lot of cotton and corn, peanuts, hogs, cows and chickens. It was very hard, hard work. I saw my mother and my father, my grandparents and great-grandparents, and later as children we all had to work from sun up to sundown, and some years we didn't make enough or produce enough to live on.

But I also saw segregation.

I saw racial discrimination as a young child. I saw those signs that said "White Men, Colored Men, White Women, Colored Women." If you go to the little town of Troy, about 50 miles south of Montgomery on a Saturday, you go to a theater, and all of the little white children went downstairs and all of the black children, we all had to go upstairs to the balcony. I remember as a young child with some of my brothers and sisters and first cousins going down to the public library trying to get library cards, trying to check some books out, and we were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only and not for "coloreds." But I also recall in 1954, when I was 14 years old and in ninth grade, when the Supreme Court decision came down. I thought for the first time that I would be attending a desegregated school, a better school. I wouldn't have the hand-me-down books, wouldn't be traveling in a broken down school bus. The school wouldn't be over crowded and poorly staffed, but it didn't happen for me. I would ask my mother and ask my father, "Why segregation? Why racial discrimination?" And they would say, "That's the way it is. That's the way it is. Don't get in trouble. Don't get in the way."

About a year and a half later...

I heard about Rosa Parks, and I heard Martin Luther King, Jr.'s voice on an old radio, and the words of Dr. King and the action of Rosa Parks inspired me. I followed the drama of the Montgomery bus boycott. We were too poor to have a subscription to the local newspaper -- it was called The Montgomery Advertiser -- so my grandfather had a subscription, and when he would finish reading his paper we would get his paper and read about what was going on in Montgomery and listen to the radio. We didn't have a television then. And Dr. King was so inspiring, so inspiring. I wanted to find a way to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement and become part of it. I would hear him speak. I just felt that he was speaking to me. Like he was saying, "John Lewis, you can do it. You can get involved. You must get involved." And when I got the chance, I got involved.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

John Lewis Interview Photo

What kind of student were you as a kid?

John Lewis: I was not the brightest student. I studied. I worked hard, but from time to time my mother and father, especially my father, wanted us to stay out of school and work in the field, and I knew I needed to get an education. I wanted to get an education. So sometimes when my father would suggest that we'd have to stay home and plot a mule, help gather the crops, I would get up early in the morning, get dressed, and get my book bag and hide under the front porch, and when I heard the school bus coming up the hill, I would run out and get on that school bus and go off to school. And sometimes my father would say, "You know, I told you to stay home, but you went off to school." And we would talk, but he knew that I saw the value of education and I wanted to get an education. I didn't like working out in the hot sun picking cotton, pulling corn, gathering peanuts, and I wanted to get an education because I knew I needed it, and I knew it would be better for me in the days and years to come.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

What made you aware of that? There must have been thousands of other young black men and women who did not see that need for getting out of the fields, for getting an education.

John Lewis: I had a wonderful teacher. One of my teachers was wonderful. She would tell us over and over again, "Get an education. Get something that no one will be able to take from you. Get an education. You won't have to work like that in the field making starvation wages. Get an education." And she would say, "Read, my child. Read. Read everything." And at our home we had very few books, so at school there were more books. There were magazines, there were newspapers, and I tried to read everything.

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This page last revised on Mar 18, 2015 00:24 EDT
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