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On November 16, John Lewis—along with his collaborators, co-author Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell—won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature with March: Book Three, the third installment of a memoir rendered as an extended-length comic book. But long before he accepted that honor, Lewis had already been named the 2016 recipient of the Nashville Public Library Literary Award, a prize that last week brought him back to Nashville, where he first began his long career as a civil-rights activist.
In 1958, Lewis was a seminary student at American Baptist College when he attended training sessions for nonviolent resistance to segregation, a strategy for change based on the example of Gandhi and the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. In February 1960, just days before his 21st birthday, Lewis participated in his first sit-in—an attempt to desegregate the lunch counter at Woolworth’s department store in downtown Nashville—which quickly led to his first arrest. “The first time I got arrested in this city, I felt free,” he said in a public address at Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet High School in Nashville on November 19. “I have not looked back since.”
As the March books detail, the conflict in Nashville was only the beginning of Lewis’s still-unfolding pattern of nonviolent resistance as a response to systemic discrimination. A founder and longtime chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis participated in every significant event of the civil-rights era, including the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, Freedom Summer, and the march from Selma to Montgomery. In the decades since, he has been arrested more than forty-five times, including five times as a sitting member of the U.S. Congress, during peaceful protests against injustice—all the result of training he received as a student in Nashville.
Lewis’s return to Nashville last week happened to coincide with the unexpected discovery of his own arrest records and relics from the old Woolworth’s lunchroom, both long believed lost to history. The original tile backsplash of the Woolworth’s lunch counter, hidden by drywall and presumed destroyed, came to light during renovations to the historic building. The discovery of Lewis’s arrest records was equally fortuitous: after repeated searches over the years by Nashville historian and attorney David Ewing consistently turned up nothing, the documents appeared to be irretrievably lost. Then Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson requested Lewis’s file to use as a counterexample when teaching young cadets the importance of respecting peaceful demonstrations. The “file” contained a single sheet of paper marked with an archival number that finally led to the discovery of Lewis’s original mug shots, which Nashville Mayor Megan Barry presented to him in a surprise at his public address celebrating the library award. “I almost cried,” Lewis told reporters after the event. “I was so young.”
Two days after winning the National Book Award and the day before he received the Nashville Public Library Literary Award, Lewis sat down with Chapter 16 in the library’s Civil Rights Room to talk about his books and public service:
Margaret Renkl: Back in your student days, when you were being arrested repeatedly for working to integrate restaurants and movie theaters and the rest of daily life here, what would you have said if someone had told you that one day you’d be back in Nashville to accept a prestigious award for your work as an author?
John Lewis: I would have said, “You’re crazy. You’re out of your mind. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” I feel more than lucky—I feel blessed to come back here. I’m honored, I’m gratified, I’m pleased.
MR: I know you’ve returned to Nashville many times since your student days, including a visit to the 2013 Southern Festival of Books the year the first volume of March was released. But you might not know of the recent discovery, during renovations, of the tile wall behind the old Woolworth’s lunch counter. Do you ever think about those days of training and sit-ins, the very earliest days of your work as a civil-rights activist?
JL: I remember so well—so well—that Woolworth’s lunch counter. On February 27, 1960, when the group downstairs had been arrested, we came downstairs to join them and get arrested and go to jail. That was my first one, my first arrest. I came to Nashville when I was 17 years old to study, and I grew up here. Nashville was the first city that I lived in. So it’s like coming home.
MR: In the March trilogy, the story of your history is framed and punctuated throughout with scenes from your experiences on January 20, 2009—the day of Barack Obama’s first inauguration—and it includes a note signed by President Obama: “Because of you, John.” What are you thinking as you watch his presidency come to an end after eight years?
JL: It’s difficult to see it come to a close because I think President Barack Obama has injected something rare and meaningful into America, and it’s going to be missed. I see him from time to time; I listen to him by way of radio, TV; I read about him and each time he seems to be hopeful and optimistic. And that’s what we need more than ever before. I think he’s been good for America. He’s been good for the world community. On one occasion, when he was running for reelection, I said, “Mr. President, if you were running for reelection in Europe, you wouldn’t have to campaign. You’d win by a landslide.” I’ve traveled to different parts [of Europe], and the people there love him.
And so many of children, so many of our young people—and it doesn’t matter whether they’re black or white, Latino, Asian-American, or Native American—the only president they know is Barack Obama. Not too long ago I saw this story on television: a mother told her daughter that President Barack Obama’s last year is this year, and the little girl started crying. I think we’re going to miss his leadership. We’re going to miss his presence. I hope that he’s going to stay engaged, stay involved, and I think he will.
MR: Listening to Thurgood Marshall speak at Fisk in 1960, you write, “Thurgood Marshall was a good man, but listening to him speak convinced me that our revolt was as much against traditional black leadership structure as it was against segregation and discrimination.” How do you think the Black Lives Matter organizers feel about your generation of leaders? Do you have a sense of that at all?
JL: I think the Black Lives Matters generation tends to admire and embrace what we did. I have had the opportunity to sit down and meet in Atlanta—and also in Washington—with many of the young people, and I tell them all the time, “Read the literature, read the papers and books and speeches from that period. You could learn something.” And I tell them that we never became bitter. We never became hostile. We believed in the way of peace, the way of love—we believed in the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. I say, “You can learn something from the 1960s.” And that’s what I tell them each and every time I meet with some of them.
MR: For them the 60s must seem like ancient history. I wonder if young people today can even imagine your daily struggle back then, getting up every single time to go back out and be arrested again, to be beaten again.
JL: And we did it, over and over and over again. We were persistent. We never gave up. We kept the faith.
MR: You spoke at the March on Washington in 1963, and now you are the only one left who spoke that day. What advice do you have for young organizers planning a response to civil-rights challenges around the country today?
JL: My advice is to be faithful to the cause, and give it all you have. Do as much as you can. But take a long, hard look at the struggle to change America, to make our country and our institutions a little more human. It’s not one that lasts for a few days or a few weeks or a few months or a few years—or one election cycle. It is the struggle of a lifetime.
MR: After all that’s happened, do you still share Dr. King’s belief that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice?
JL: Oh, yes. I believe that. I believe it deeply. I believe it in my heart and in my soul. There may be some setbacks. There may be some disappointments. But we will get there because I believe that history is on the side of justice, of what is right.
MR: After you unsuccessfully attempted to integrate Troy State University, you write that you returned to Nashville feeling that the “spirit of history” was taking hold of your life. Do you have any sense of where the spirit of history is taking this nation next?
JL: In these days that seem to be so dark, I think the spirit of history is still leading us and guiding us—I believe in that. Call it what you may, but I believe that somehow, in some way, good is going to prevail. And out of some of the darkest hours, there will be daybreak. There will be light. And we will get there. You have to believe it. You have to believe in your guts that it’s going to be OK. Just be persistent. Be consistent. And never become bitter; never become hostile. I know there are people who have said in the past—and some say it today—that I’m too hopeful, that I’m too optimistic. But you have to be hopeful. You have to be optimistic. If you lose that sense of hope, then it’s like not existing at all.
MR: In your National Book Award acceptance speech, you recalled Colleen Harvey, the school librarian who makes an appearance in the first volume of March, and her exhortation to read. “My dear children, read,” she told you. “Read everything.” And all three of your books are dedicated “to the past and future children of the movement.” Do you have any advice of your own to give American children?
JL: Yes. I would say, “Children, read. Read everything. Learn as much as you can learn. Study. Be kind. Be bold. Be courageous. And just go for it.” As I write in the book, my mother and father and grandparents and others said, “Don’t get in trouble. Don’t get in the way.” I was inspired to get in trouble, and I got in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. People like Rosa Parks and Dr. King and Jim Lawson and others—and being in Nashville—helped mold and shape me, and I have not looked back since.
MR: Is there anything I haven’t asked about that you’d like to discuss?
JL: I feel really, really blessed to have grown up and seen so many changes, and met so many unbelievably gifted, smart people who have given so much to me. I was in a library in San Diego talking about the book, and there was a lot of young students—elementary school, middle school, high school—but one young girl, about eight or nine years old, she said, “Congressman, I have a question.”
And I said, “What is your question? What question do have?”
And she said, “Congressman, why are you so awesome?”
I didn’t have an answer. I tried to say something like, “I don’t think I’m awesome. I just try to follow the teaching of what is right, what is fair, what is just.” That’s what we all must do.