Congressman John Lewis’ Washington, D.C., office is filled from floor to ceiling with photographs and souvenirs from a lifetime of activism: the Freedom Rides he risked his life for from the age of 21; the March on Washington, where Lewis wrote a speech so fiery that Martin Luther King Jr. advised him to tone it down; the voting-rights work in Selma, Alabama, where, as head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis was beaten by state troopers during the march to Montgomery.
Looking at this wall of history, one is reminded that Lewis represents so much more than Georgia’s Fifth District. He has become the custodian of America’s moral character. During his 33 years in Congress, Lewis, 79, has not only led the charge for legislative victories like Obamacare but has staged a sit-in on the House floor to draw attention to Republicans’ refusal to take up gun control. Arrested more than 40 times in the Sixties, Lewis was put in cuffs as recently as 2013 for a protest outside the Capitol over immigration reform. He refused to attend Trump’s inauguration (as he did George W. Bush’s), skipped both of Trump’s State of the Union addresses, and even boycotted the 2017 opening of a civil-rights museum in Mississippi that Trump attended. The president’s policies are an insult to the people portrayed in the museum, said Lewis, who understands better than anyone the stakes involved as today’s Republicans erode many of the same civil-rights victories that he bled to win.
The congressman speaks in such a distinctive and weighty cadence that it’s almost startling to hear him say something as mundane as “Good afternoon” when he greets me with a firm handshake at his office door. The fight in his voice is never far from the surface. I ask Lewis if he still considers himself a radical. “I believe that I’m a radical for fairness,” he tells me. “A radical for justice. A radical for the truth.”
We’re speaking on what would have been Dr. King’s 90th birthday. What would you have wanted to talk to your friend about today?
I would say, “Dr. King, we have come a distance, we have made some progress, but we still have a great distance to go before we lay down the burden of racism. There have been so many setbacks since you left. We have someone, the head of our government, who, in the finality, is a racist. He doesn’t understand the meaning of your life and the significance of the civil-rights movement. But I truly believe, somehow and some way, we will not give up, we will not give in. We will continue to do what we must to create what you called the Beloved Community. We will do what we must to redeem the soul of America.”
I think you are uniquely qualified to tell us how dangerous a time this is for the country.
I hate to say it, but I think we’re in deep trouble. We have to find ways to get people a greater sense of hope. You worry about our future, as a people and as a nation. Sometimes you’re afraid to go to sleep, to turn off the radio or the television or to pick up a book or a newspaper and read. These are times, we heard it over and over again, they’re trying souls.
Do you have diversions that help keep your mind right?
Here and there. But I have never been like this, even during the height of the civil-rights movement.
Never. During those days, there was a greater sense of hope and optimism.
Marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge [in Selma], you had more hope than you do now?
Yeah, I was very hopeful when we were marching across that bridge. I was very, very hopeful when we were sitting in or speaking at the March on Washington. But we cannot lose hope.
How do we get that hope back? Obama can’t run again [laughs].
I just think all these young Democrats that are talking about running — some not so young — they gotta get out there and push and pull and take it to [Trump] and win. Win one for the American people, win one to save the country, to save our democracy.
What should the legislative goals of this new Congress be, especially when it comes to racial equality?
Well, this Congress — which is so diverse, [has] so many young people, so many women — should make a major down payment on setting the American house in order, on putting America on the right side and not discriminating against people because of their history, their background, the color of their skin or what part of the world [they come from]. We have a great, unbelievable debate about building a wall. On many occasions I’ve said that we shouldn’t be building walls — we should be building bridges.
The first bill, H.R. 1, is nothing short of revolutionary in terms of what it could do — automatic voter registration, Election Day holiday, protections for early voting, ending gerrymandering. Do you feel like this is overdue?
H.R. 1 is so necessary. It is a dream that is in the process of coming true. There has been a deliberate, systematic effort to make it more difficult for some people, especially minorities, to participate in the democratic process. [In 2018], we saw it in Florida, we saw it in Georgia, we saw it affecting Native Americans, and we cannot have another major election in America until we fix the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And under the leadership of Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi, we’re gonna fix it. We’re gonna do our very best. If not, some people gonna have hell to pay.
The FIRST STEP Act, the criminal-justice reform that eased sentencing guidelines and passed late last year — why is it a good first step, and what needs to be the next one?
On the first vote, I didn’t vote for it. And I said, “We need to make this stronger.” And they did what they could to make it stronger. There were individual Republicans from Georgia who joined in. And [Rep.] Hakeem Jeffries from New York played a major role. It’s a necessary step, but we got to go much further. [Prisons] are housing hundreds of thousands of people, and we got to give them a chance.
Should Democrats move forward with an impeachment effort against Trump?
I think what we need to do as a party and as a people is pace ourselves. I mean, take our time and not be so quick to move down that road to impeachment. Bring everything to the front, and be willing and be prepared to take action. During the civil-rights movement, we would be beaten and jailed, some of us left for dead. We all said, “Pace yourself, pace yourself” — and I still believe that today. You take the long, hard look and believe if you’re consistent and persistent, we can work it out, and it will work out.
What’s the most urgent mess a new Democratic administration would have to clean up?
We need a president, a leader of the national government, who’s not a racist. Trump is a racist. And we need leaders in high places — not just in the office of the president, but members of Congress, governors — who understand what the struggle was all about, who are trying to make the dreams and the hopes and aspirations of Dr. King come alive.
You’ve often talked about making “good trouble.” Who do you see making good trouble now, and how are you still getting into that yourself?
I admire the gentleman from North Carolina, Bishop [William] Barber [II]. He is not just a preacher of the Gospel, but he is a preacher of what I call “necessary trouble.” My philosophy is very simple: If you see something that is not right, not fair, not just — you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something. Start trouble.
When I was growing up in rural Alabama, I would ask my mother and father, “Why this, why that?” when I saw those signs that said, “White waiting, colored waiting.” I said, “Why, why?” I saw those water fountains. And my mother always said, “Boy, that’s the way it is. Don’t get in trouble.”
But the action of Rosa Parks and the leadership of Dr. King inspired me to get in “good trouble.” And I’ve been getting in “good trouble” ever since.
How important was the press to the civil-rights movement?
If it hadn’t been for the press, the civil-rights movement, the whole struggle would have been like a bird without wings. I believe that. For the press, it was very dangerous, especially in the American South, to be a reporter, to be there with a pen and a pad, with a camera. I saw members of the Klan and racists turning on the media, beating people, leaving them bloody, and then turning on us.
How do you define racism in 2019?
Racism is the deeply embedded psyche of America. We cannot escape it. We cannot hide it in some dark corner. Racism is one of the great sins of America. We grow up in a race-conscious society. Since African-Americans came here — or were brought here — racism has been part of our government. Every so often this deeply embedded sickness raises its ugly head in different forms and fashion. We try to sweep it under the rug, we try to sweep it into some dark corner. But we must continue to do what we can to bury it so that it never rises again. To wash it from the shores of America.
Do you speak with President Obama often?
I see him from time to time. I saw him doing a Stacey Abrams campaign [event]. I had dinner with him in Atlanta. A year ago, we spent two hours together sitting down with a group of high school students, a group of young black men.
When you do get a moment together, what do you two talk about?
We talk about meeting for the first time. When he was a student at Harvard, I’d been invited to speak, and he remembered me from those days. We talk about [when] he was elected. I remember so well. I jumped so high I didn’t think my feet were gonna touch the floor. I just kept crying and jumping, and someone asked me why I was crying so much. I said I was crying for the people that never lived to see this day, crying for Dr. King, for President Kennedy, President Johnson, Robert Kennedy and for all of those black people that stood in those unmovable lines and never had an opportunity to register to vote.
And the day that he was inaugurated — it’s a tradition here on Capitol Hill for the leadership of Congress to hold a breakfast for the president, the vice president and their families — I had a little piece of paper in my hand, and I said, “Mr. President, will you sign this?” And he signed it: “It’s all because of you, John. Barack Obama.”
And when I saw him four years later, he walked up to me and said, “It’s still because of you, John.” He remembered from, I guess, that day, what he had said to me.
In your time here in Washington, what have you learned?
One thing I learned: This is a city where you can do things and make things happen. And it’s very inspiring to move around in, to be on Capitol Hill and walk through some of the buildings where others walked. Or walk to the Lincoln Memorial the way we did on August 28th, 1963. To walk up the steps of the Supreme Court, where Thurgood Marshall walked out on the day when his decision came down desegregating public schools.
How have you changed as a man during your time here?
Well, I’ve changed. I know I’ve changed. I’ve grown up. But I think I still have the fighting spirit. You see something, you have to say something. You have to do something. I tell young people all the time, “Be bold. Be brave. Be courageous. Go for it.”
What music do you turn to again and again?
If it hadn’t been for music, I really don’t know what would have happened. Sometimes we’d be fresh from jail and you had a quarter, you go to a little juke joint. They had a place outside of Tuskegee. What was that place called? A little club, and people could go there and get something to drink and dance. You get beat up and you’re taken to a hospital, you get out and you go listen to Aretha, and it was soothing. I really believe this: Music was like a bridge.
What music is lifting your spirits right now?
Well, I tell you, the other day, I was telling some of the staff here, you remember a singer by the name of — you’re probably too young — but you’ll probably know who sang “Rainy Night in Georgia”?
“I feel like it’s raining all over the world”?
Brook Benton. Yeah, I remember that.
To me, it was very soulful. This young staffer kept pulling up this song with Dinah Washington and Benton singing together, “Baby You’ve Got What It Takes.” It was so moving. It took me back to my days in the civil-rights movement, because as a person growing up in rural Alabama, I had very, very little money. But sometimes, as I said, when we’d get out of jail, someplace in the Delta, Mississippi, the blight of Alabama or Nashville, that moving music brought us together. And that’s why I love the song “Happy” [by Pharrell]. I tell people all the time, “Be happy.” Be happy. Enjoy life. Don’t be down all the time.