from "John Lewis"
THERE'S A PHOTOGRAPH. You've probably seen it, though you may not remember. A young black man in suit, tie, and dress shoes, his hands thrust into the pockets of his light tan raincoat. His expression is neither submissive nor hostile. Only resolute. Advancing upon him and the narrow column of civil rights marchers filed across the bridge behind him is an army of Alabama State Troopers. Moments after that photo was snapped, a billy club smashed into his skull and he slumped to the ground, unconscious.
Although film clips from Bloody Sunday - Selma, Alabama, March 7, 1965 - flooded into millions of living rooms, very few Americans recognized the young man being beaten as John Lewis, one of the early Freedom Riders, an organizer of the student sit-ins at Nashville lunch counters, and leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Few white Americans, in fact, would have even recognized his name. He wasn't an outstanding orator in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr. He wasn't as handsome as Julian Bond or as polished as Andrew Young. He didn't disturb the sleep of white people like Stokely Carmichael or H. Rap Brown. He had a slight speech impediment and never quite mastered the art of the sound bite. And yet in his quiet, stubborn way Lewis pushed, and sometimes pulled, the civil rights movement forward.
His capacity for punishment was legendary; he was arrested and jailed forty times. He was beaten repeatedly, kicked in the ribs and face so many times, he lost count of the injuries. Yet he never struck back. Not physically. His weapons of choice were fearless effrontery and a gift for what he called "creative disruption." During SNCC's turbulent passage from nonviolence to Black Power, he clung firmly to the principles of pacifism, causing him to be cast aside as an "anachronism." He rose from the ashes to high political office. In 1986 he was elected congressman from Georgia's fifth district and was returned to office seven times, eventually appointed to the post of chief deputy Democratic whip.
His extraordinary success has baffled those who first met him as a kid fresh off an Alabama dirt farm. He didn't enter the adult world with many natural advantages. The son of a sharecropper, he was shy, physically awkward, and halting of speech. He was a child who was not supposed to succeed at anything. But then, people were always underestimating John Lewis.
In his lyrical memoir, Walking with the Wind, Lewis recalled the world of his boyhood in Carter's Quarters as "small and safe," peopled by dozens of cousins and kindly uncles named Rabbit and Goat. Yet it was also a life of extreme poverty and rural isolation. No one in his family had more than a few years of elementary school. A black child's academic career in those days was more often than not cut short by a call to the cotton fields. Until the age of six, he never saw a white person except the mailman and a traveling salesman.
From the start, however, John Robert Lewis seemed different from his six brothers and three sisters. A strangely formal child, he insisted upon wearing a bow tie and calling his mother "Mrs. Lewis." He was also very determined. When the family visited his elderly grandmother, she would point the children to a hole about 10 feet up in a chinaberry tree where the hens nested and instruct them to check it for eggs. It was always John who shinnied up the trunk first. "It wasn't that I was bigger or faster," he would recall. "It was simply that I wanted it more."
The spring he turned five, his mother placed him in charge of the family chickens. Their helplessness aroused his pity. "I felt the need to talk to them..." he later wrote, "I'd speak softly, gently, as if I were hushing a crying baby, and very quickly the cackling wouls subside until the shed was silent as a sanctuary. There was something magical, almost mystical, about that moment when those dozens and dozens of chickens, all wide awake, were looking straight at me, and I was looking back at them, all of us in total, utter silence. It felt very spiritual, almost religious."
When times made it necessary to trade a hen for sugar or baking powder, John would cry and refuse to eat. His parents were not amused, nor did they approve of his strong opinions, which, as they saw it, challenged the natural order of things. There was no way, he would argue, that a person could get ahead as a tenant farmer. A man could pick a fifth of a ton of cotton and receive less than two dollars. "Even a six-year-old," he later wrote, "could tell that this sharecropper's life was nothing but a bottomless pit."
So John Lewis played hooky from the fields to attend school, a two-room shack supported mainly by fish fries and community picnics. "The thrill of learning to write was intense," he would later recall. Books he found there put him in touch with a world beyond Pike County. He devoured biographies of black Americans such as Booker T. Washington, Joe Louis, and Mary McLeod Bethune. He also discovered periodicals such as the Baltimore Afro-American and the Chicago Defender, which in 1954 were publishing articles about Brown v. The Board of Education. This supposedly meant he could go to school with the whites, but fourteen-year-old John Lewis noticed the decision had no effect at all upon Alabama. He still rode a bus 20 miles a day to the same segregated school. At movie theaters, he had to sit with other blacks in a balcony called "Buzzard's Row." Most humiliating to him was the discovery that he was not allowed to check books out of the public library. That was a privilege reserved for white patrons. In what he recalled as the first formal protest of his life, he walked into the Pike County Public Library and asked for a card. Turned down, he circulated a petition signed mainly by his cousins and mailed it to the county. He never got a reply.
In December 1955 an event took place in Montgomery that would change his life. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. The bus boycott that followed lasted for a year and fifteen-year-old John Lewis followed with keen curiosity. Although his parents were openly disapproving of "that young preacher" who was behind it, Dr. Martin Luther King caught and held his imagination, and Lewis decided to become a minister. He applied to and was accepted by the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, and later received his bachelor's degree from Fisk University.
On the morning he left home, his mother saw him only as far as the porch. "Be particular," she said. Then she turned and went inside.
"Change," Lewis would later write, "was not something my parents were ever very comfortable with... Theirs was, as the Bible says, a straight and narrow way... What change there was [was] usually for the worse. It's not hard to understand at all the mixture of fear and concern they both felt as they watched me walk out into the world as a young man and join a movement aimed, in essence, at turning the world they knew upside down."
Excerpted from PROFILES IN COURAGE FOR OUR TIME by Caroline Kennedy. Copyright © 2002 The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. All Rights Reserved. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold.