Q&A with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), author and civil rights leader

In Rep. John Lewis’s (D-Ga.) new book, Across That Bridge, he says we must transform ourselves before we can revolutionize our society.

The well-known civil rights leader and 25-year congressional incumbent spoke to The Hill about his storied career in politics and activism.

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Q: What inspired you to write this book?

More than anything else during the past three years, and especially since I’ve been in Congress, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on so many things that have changed and not changed.

Hundreds of thousands of young people come to Washington to visit me ... I come into contact with so many people raising the question of “What can I do? What must I do? I want to be helpful, I want to help change things.”

I thought this book would be helpful and inspire people to make a difference. I think the children and even adults think that some of the people that came out of the civil rights movement were superhuman, and we were just ordinary people that had been inspired to do something.

Q: How did you balance writing this book with your work in Congress?

During the evening and at night, early morning and even when I go home for a break, I could take time to reflect and think. With the help and support of wonderful friends, I was able to do it.

Q: What is your writing style?

I make a lot of speeches, and it’s one thing to speak, and it’s another thing to write. And with the help of editors and writers, we brought this book alive and made it real.

Q: Early on in the book, you said our nation is facing “unique hostility” that is worse than what we experienced in the 1960s. Could you elaborate on that?

During the 1960s we had many, many problems. We came to many crises. But today we are much more hostile and less forgiving, and we don’t have the sense that we’re in this all together — that we have to look out for … and care for each other. It’s almost every man and woman for him- or herself.

And in spite of the problems we had in the ’60s, we came together as a nation, and we saw some of those big problems, and we came to that point where we had the courage, the real courage, to say that we would not continue on this path. There were both Democrats and Republicans that worked together in the House and the Senate to get the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the Voting Rights bill of 1965 passed.

Q: In the second chapter, you said faith was the lifeblood of the civil rights movement. What role do you think faith plays in activist movements like Occupy Wall Street?

I think faith has played a role today. Faith and hope go hand in hand; if you don’t have faith in the future, you lose that sense of hope, you lose that sense of optimism. And I think the people in the Occupy movement believe that they can help turn the country around, turn our society around, and humanize business and humanize political institutions.

Q: What section of the book did you most enjoy writing?

The section dealing with reconciliation. That is the end, that is the goal — to be reconciled. To bring together rather than separate. To build rather than tear down.

Q: What was the most difficult part of writing this book?

Just trying to keep it on track and get it out in time.

Q: Recently you helped defeat an amendment to defund a portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. You also mentioned in your book that the historic bill is under attack. How important is this issue?

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is more important now than ever before, with the upcoming national election. There is an attempt, a deliberate, systematic attempt, by forces in our country, to take us back to another period. Ending early voting, voter IDs — so many states are making it harder, making it almost impossible, for students, for young people, for the disabled, for seniors, for minorities to participate. We should be opening up the political process and letting everybody come in.

The book is saying that during another period, we had this great sense of hope, this great sense of optimism, [where we came] together as a people, as a nation, and we did something that was good for the larger society. We shouldn’t turn our backs on that accomplishment. We should embrace it and go much further.

Q: What do you think is the most urgent civil rights issue right now?

One of the most urgent civil rights issue of our time as a nation and as a people is to do something meaningful about immigration. I think it’s a shame and a disgrace how we’re treating a whole segment of the population in this country. The people in the immigrant community live in constant fear that something is going to happen to them — they’re going to be deported, they’re going to be arrested, they’re going to be detained.

What disturbed me a few months ago [is that] there was a young lady in Georgia, she was in the top of her class, and she couldn’t go to college. She couldn’t receive her scholarship. We never passed the DREAM Act [a bill that would provide qualified illegal immigrants an opportunity to enroll in college and a path to citizenship]. That’s not right, that’s not fair and that’s not just. That must be the fight. And not just for this Congress or this president, but a fight for the American people … There’s no such thing as illegal human beings. All human beings are legal.

Q: Do you think activists in the United States and around the world are using nonviolence effectively?

I do think that the people that are using the philosophy of nonviolence are using it effectively. On the other hand, there are still many ways that we can be much more effective in using the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. And with the technology that we have today and the means of communication, we can do much more with discipline, commitment, dedication and determination.

Q: You’ve walked with Martin Luther King Jr., served in local government and served as a congressman for 25 years. Which of these experiences was most defining for you?

To work with Martin Luther King Jr., to get to know this man and be inspired by this man, and later to meet President Kennedy and to work with his brother Robert Kennedy and get to know him … if it hadn’t been for these experiences, I wouldn’t be in Congress today. These men and so many others — and my involvement during that period — helped make me the person I am today.