civil rights

Segregation, King Meeting Set Lewis on Quest for Justice

Lewis became a leader of the Freedom Riders, often facing violent and angry crowds, and was jailed dozens of times

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., (center) is escorted into a mass meeting at Fish University in Nashville. His colleagues are, left to right, John Lewis, national chairman of the Student Non-Violent Committee and Lester McKinnie, on of the leaders in the racial demonstrations in Nashville recently. King gave the main address to a packed crowd.
Bettman Archive/Getty Images

Eighteen-year-old John Lewis stepped off a Greyhound bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1958 after receiving a round-trip ticket from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The teen had written King a letter because he was interested in trying to attend the all-white university in Troy just 10 miles (16 kilometers) from his family’s farm in Pike County.

“So you're John Lewis. The boy from Troy,” King said as he rose to greet the teen at a Montgomery church. “I just want to meet the boy from Troy."

Lewis, who became a civil rights icon and a longtime Georgia congressman, died July 17 at the age of 80. He will be remembered with services that begin this weekend in his home state of Alabama before moving to the U.S. Capitol, where he will lie in state, and then Georgia for his funeral next week.

A service celebrating “The Boy from Troy” will be held Saturday on the campus of Troy University. On Sunday, his casket will be carried across Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge, where he and other civil rights activists were beaten by state troopers in 1965, before lying in repose at the Alabama Capitol.

A lifetime of work can be traced back to his home in then-segregated Pike County, where Lewis winced at the signs designating “whites only" locations.

In 1958, Lewis met with King, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and civil rights lawyer Fred Gray to discuss the possibility of a lawsuit to try to integrate the university, Gray recalled. The lawsuit ultimately did not happen because of concerns about retaliation his parents would face in the majority-white county.

“The fire inside John to do something about segregation continued to burn,” Gray said. “Even before he met Dr. King, he was interested in doing something about doing away with segregation. And he did it all his life.”

Lewis — then called by his middle name, Robert — was one of 10 children born into a sharecropping family. His parents saved enough money to buy their own farm where the Lewis children worked the fields and tended the animals. A young Lewis was less fond of field work — often grousing about the grueling task — but eagerly took on the job of tending the chickens. An aspiring minister, the young Lewis would preach to the chickens to practice his craft.

“He had a way of throwing them corn while he was preaching,” younger sister Rosa Tyner remembered.

In his autobiography, “Walking with the Wind,” Lewis described how as a youngster he longed to go the county’s public library but wasn't allowed because it was for whites only.

“That killed me. The idea that this was a public library, paid for with government money and I as supposedly a U.S. citizen, but I wasn’t allowed in. Even an eight-year-old could see there was something terribly wrong about that,” Lewis wrote.

He would eventually apply for a library card there, knowing he would be refused, in what he considered his first official act of resistance to racial apartheid.

“He saw those signs saying that black people go this way, white people go this way. He had a vision that things could, should and would be better with a lot of effort, and he was willing to sacrifice his life for it,” younger brother Henry Lewis said.

In 1955, he heard a new voice on the radio: King, who was leading the Montgomery bus boycott about 50 miles (80 kilometers) away.

Lewis became a leader of the Freedom Riders, often facing violent and angry crowds, and was jailed dozens of times. In 1961, he was beaten after arriving at the same Montgomery station where he arrived three years earlier to meet King. In 1965, his skull was fractured in Selma as troopers beat civil rights demonstrators in the melee that became known as Bloody Sunday.

His parents and siblings watched the news footage of the Selma beatings, worried that he would become the next civil rights martyr.

“It was a very stressful time on my parents and the family, but you know, he was on a mission. He was on a mission,” Henry Lewis said.

Some of the Lewis siblings live along the same winding, pine-lined road where the family farm stood. His parents’ original home was demolished long ago but Lewis came home often to visit, making sure to attend graduations for nieces and nephews.

“He was so humble, and he was so unselfish. ... He would give the least person in the crowd the most attention,” Henry Lewis said.

The Troy public library now has a sign outside honoring Lewis. Students at the university where he wasn’t allowed to attend study his life and work.

Last year, Lewis announced he had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer.

Tyner said that about a week before his death she asked him about possibly seeing another doctor.

“He said, ‘No, I’m at peace. I’m at peace and I’m ready to go,’” she said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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