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We didn't just "wake up with a dream"

Eight years ahead of his death, Congressman and Civil Rights icon John Lewis spoke with GCN’s Karen Beavor about his 2012 guidebook for the next generation of changemakers, as well as the power of preparation, patience, and outreach.

Listen to the conversation between Karen Beavor and Congressman Lewis:


(Image: Betsy Reid)

On his new book, Across That Bridge:
Life Lessons and a Vision for Change:

Across That Bridge is primarily a guide, to say to another generation of committed activists: this is what we did, and this is the way we did it. It is my hope and my prayer that people will read it and learn that another generation—without social media, with limited resources—brought about unbelievable changes, for the most part in a very peaceful, orderly and nonviolent manner. We had the ability, and we had the capacity to change a nation, to change the larger society. So I think people should read the literature and watch film footage of this unbelievable period in our society.

There’s still much work to do to save and protect the planet, and ourselves. There are so many things a local community or indigenous organiza­tion can do, but the people need help. They need support. A little encouragement here, a little encour­agement there, one individual, two individuals, four or five individuals coming together with the help and the support of nonprofit organizations and groups, can help change this society and create a more peaceful community.

On the importance of preparation:

We didn’t just wake up one morning with a dream that we would go out and do something. We studied, we prepared ourselves. Before we participated in a sit-in, a march, or the freedom rides; before we went out to organize the unorganized or to mobilize people around citizen education or attempt to get registered to vote; we studied the philosophy and the way of non-violence.

“A lot of people think you got to protest, you got to march, hire a lobbyist. But you can also sit down with elected officials, with different segments of larger society, with the movers and the shakers.”

We studied what Gandhi attempted to accomplish in South Africa, what he accomplished in India. We studied the role of civil disobedience. We studied the great religions of the world. We studied with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the people all about in Montgomery.

And we had what we called social drama role-playing: black and white students in the city of Nashville, long before the sit-in started in Greensboro, N.C. on February 1st, in November and December 1959, students from Vanderbilt, Peabody College, Fisk University, Tennessee State and American Baptist College started these nonviolent workshops, and we did it for the entire school year. Every Tuesday night we would meet at a little church, a small group of us, and we became commit­ted to the way of peace, the way of love, and the way of nonviolence.

On the tension between patience and action:

I think it’s important for a nonprofit to prepare young people—and people not so young—to act, to motivate, to inspire people to act. That if they believe in something and want to do something about it, they have to act.

[But] I really believe in this idea that you have to be patient, in the sense that you cannot throw in the towel and give up. You have to take the long, hard look and believe that if it’s something worth fighting for, to bring about change, in a search for truth, you continue. There may be some disappointments. I try to suggest in [my book], there may be some setbacks, and some interruption, but you cannot give up. We may not accomplish our goal during one election cycle, or during a few weeks, a few months, a few years. But we have to continue to move forward.

And I know it’s strange for me, when I was working on the book and working on this chapter [“Patience”], I remember setting out for the march on Washington, and we said, “You tell us to wait, you tell us to be patient, but we cannot wait. We cannot be patient. We will have freedom and we want it now.” When being patient, we must not ever lose that sense of urgency. You have to continue to be active, moving toward the direction you want to go and you want to take others.

On the power of outreach:

Nonprofits play a major role in helping to educate, to sensitize, and to inform people, because a nonprofit is not just political. There are so many ways nonprofits can help motivate and educate people to move accord­ing to the dictates of their conscience.

"You have to take the long, hard look and believe if it’s something worth fighting for, to bring about change, in a search for truth, you continue."

I tell young people when I’m visiting schools, “You know you live here in Georgia, in Alabama, in Mississippi, that was the heart of the movement. Get your parents and your teachers, your principals and others, to take you on a field trip. You can take a one-day trip to Montgomery, to Tuskegee, to Birmingham.” There’s a great group called Soldier Into the Past, based in California, [organized by] a young American History high school teacher who heard me speak on a book tour for my first

book. So since 1998, I believe, this young man has been bringing high school students—primarily from northern California, but he started bringing them from Detroit, Cleveland, New Orleans—in groups of 100.They come to Atlanta, and then travel to Tuskegee, Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Jackson, Little Rock and Memphis. He’s brought more than 5,000 students and I’ve spoken to every single group except one.

And for the past 12 years, I have been taking members of congress: Democrats, Republicans, conservative members, moderates, liberals, black, white, Asian American. We go to Birmingham on a Friday, we spend all day in Birmingham, then travel to Montgomery, spend all day in Montgomery, then we travel to Selma, spend all day, then fly back to Washington. And we do it the first weekend in March every year. And on one of the trips, there was a senator from one of the Southern states, who is very conservative. He said to me after completing the trip: “John, if I had been on this trip earlier, my voting record would be different.”

On connecting with legislators and others:

You have to build relationships not just with the [congress] members, but also with staffers. Educating the staff, sensitizing the staff, and informing them of what you’re doing.

“There are so many ways nonprofits can help motivate and educate people to move according to the dictates of their conscience.”

And there are so many ways. A lot of people think you got to protest, you got to march, hire a lobbyist. But you can also sit down with elected officials, with different segments of larger society, with the movers and the shakers. I think nonprofits can play a major role in bringing [together] elected officials and non-elected leaders.

There’s so much separation in our society. Tearing down some of those barriers, tearing down some of those walls, getting people together in the same room, around the same table, so they can see their [common] interests. In the sixties, we spoke a great deal about being a Circle of Trust, a Band of Brothers and Sisters, and [about] that sense of community, the sense that we all need each other, and depend on each other, and that we do not live alone.

Congressman John Lewis represented Georgia’s 5th congressio­nal district, including most of Metro Atlanta, in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1986 until his death in 2020. A leader in the Civil Rights Movement and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he devoted his life to human rights and nonviolent advocacy in the face of multiple arrests, physical attacks, and serious injury.

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