"I Do Believe We Shall Overcome": Why Legendary Civil-Rights Activist John Lewis Is Optimistic
They call Congress the People’s House, so it is surreal to walk into the House of Representatives in the middle of the government shutdown. The rotunda, normally buzzing with visitors and members taping TV appearances, is empty save a man and his toddler daughter, her delighted squeals ricocheting around the marble interior.
But more than surreal, being here is exciting. When I visit, it’s been barely two weeks since the most racially diverse and most female group ever was elected to the House. I’ve come here to talk to U.S. congressman and civil-rights icon John Lewis. Our topic? Optimism.
It’s impossible to condense Lewis’s storied civil-rights history, his literal march for equal rights and common decency: from Nashville, Tenn., sit-ins in 1960 to the Selma, Ala., voting-rights campaign in 1965 to more recent “good trouble” (his famous term) in 2016, a sit-in on the House floor to fight for gun control. What is also incalculable is how much he has inspired the new members of the House, some of whom have burst into tears upon seeing him. He keeps a box of tissues handy in his office.
And Lewis’s office is something to behold. It’s a visual history lesson, with pictures of him marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; a bust of President John F. Kennedy; photos of him on Wheaties boxes and receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama; and, most poignantly, a bale of cotton. It’s images that Lewis relies on to tell the civil-rights story, so that’s where we begin.
Laura Brown: Sir, tell me about this picture of you on the street.
REP. John Lewis: This is the result of a sit-in at a lunch counter in downtown Nashville in 1960. We were sitting in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion, yet almost a hundred of us were arrested. I wanted to look fresh — what young people back then called clean, sharp — but I had very little money. So I went to a men’s used-clothing store and bought this suit for $5. The vest came with it. If I still had that suit today, I probably could sell it on eBay. But I don’t know what happened to it.
LB: How many times have you been arrested?
JL: During the ’60s it was 40. Since I’ve been in Congress [he has been representing Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District since 1987], another five.
LB: When was the most recent?
JL: The last time was [in 2013] when we were trying to get the speaker of the House [John Boehner] to bring forth comprehensive immigration reform. If they had brought up the bill, almost every single Democrat would have voted for it. Enough Republicans would have crossed over and voted [to pass it], and President Obama would have signed it into law.
LB: Do you have anything resembling a typical day? What time do you get up?
JL: I get up very early, this morning at 4 o’clock. Since the present person has been in the White House, I don’t sleep good at night. I feel like something will happen and I will miss it, so I stay up until 2 or 3. Or I go to bed around midnight and get up at 3 or 4. In the morning I have several meetings, sometimes four, before even walking into the office.
LB: Where does your physical energy come from? How do you exist on three hours of sleep?
JL: You have to center yourself. Just continue to move on and do what I call “Pick ’em up and put ’em down.” At the height of the march from Selma to Montgomery, as we were walking along, a young guy wrote a little song. He was saying, “Pick ’em up, lay ’em down, now pick ’em up and put ’em down.” All the way from Selma. I can never forget that.
LB: The original idea for this interview was to talk about optimism. And now we have even more reason to be optimistic: all these new members — a record number of women — who have come into the halls here.
JL: It’s been so inspiring to see such dedicated, smart, gifted young people ready to lead. Before the election I told my colleagues that we were going to win. As I traveled around America I could feel it — that we were going to take control of the House. You have to believe. You have to be hopeful. You have to be optimistic. [It was the] same thing during the civil-rights movement. You may get beaten, arrested, or thrown in jail, but somehow I just believed that in the end it was going to work out and that it was going to be all right.
LB: How did you metabolize, as you call him, “the present person in the White House” after the election?
JL: The first day or so I couldn’t believe what had happened. I had campaigned for Mrs. Clinton in different places in America. I felt down. Even today, in spite of everything, it’s going to work out. It’s going to be OK.
LB: Who was the first new member of Congress you’ve met? Are they all knocking on your door for advice?
JL: I’ve met some amazing, amazing young people. Ilhan Omar, who’s representing part of Minnesota, came to America when she was very young. She is from Somalia. She walked into the Capitol, saw me, and said, “I read about you when I was in middle school,” and started crying. I chatted with her yesterday on the [House] floor. She beamed a sense of hope and optimism, as so many of the young people do.
LB: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the most prominent and outspoken new member of Congress. So many people who have run for office have been too cautious, too calibrated. How does it feel for you to see people just doing it?
JL: It makes me feel good to see people being themselves, just going with the flow, saying what they feel and what
LB: We are together on the 20th day of the partial government shutdown. How does that affect your day-to-day?
JL: Well, I’m deeply concerned about what is happening to the average person. At the airport in Atlanta or in Washington, D.C., people who work at the TSA and police officers are asking [me about it]. They say things like, “Congressman, please do what you can to open the government because I need my job. I need my check. I need to buy food. I need to pay tuition for my children.” So that’s pain; that’s suffering. They’ve been hurting.
LB: Does it ever become overwhelming to be approached by people? Living your life as a person and your life as a symbol?
JL: It doesn’t disturb me. It’s part of the price you pay. I’ll go places here on the Capitol grounds, and people will say, “I’m going to faint!”
LB: Oh, wow! Do you walk around with smelling salts?
JL: We had this lady come in, and she saw me and said, “I’m gonna faint!” And I said, “Please, ma’am, don’t faint. I’m not a doctor.” [laughs] People come here, and they just start crying. But I understand that, I do. In my office in Atlanta we keep a box of tissues for when that happens. Sometimes I cry with them. But seeing people gives me energy.
LB: Who or what makes you weary in this current climate?
JL: I’ve met all types of politicians, some good ones and some not so good. But I’m still optimistic about the future. You know, during the movement and during my days of growing up in the church, we were singing, “Trouble Don’t Last Always,” and it themed some of the civil-rights movement. It was a song of hope and optimism. Deep in my heart, I do believe we shall overcome. You may beat me, arrest me, throw me in jail, but I believe we shall overcome. I believe we will have a victory.
LB: Everyone sees “Democrats vs. Republicans,” but you are physically interacting with everyone all the time.
JL: I see people. I will walk down the hall and say, “Hello, brother. Hello, young sister.” Some people are taken aback. Why should a progressive, so-called liberal Democrat like me be saying that? More than 20 years ago we started taking people to historic sites in Alabama from the civil-rights movement, such as Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma. This year we plan to go back in early March. We’ll see where Rosa Parks was arrested, where Dr. King lived, the house that was bombed.
LB: Can you even surmise what Dr. King would feel if he were alive today?
JL: I think Dr. King would be pleased to see the number of women and minorities holding office in America and the Congress. But I think he would be disappointed in the violence that still exists in America among young people. And the violence that exists in the world.
LB: What was your family life like when you were growing up?
JL: I grew up in a very large family with six brothers and three sisters and a wonderful mother and father. On my mother’s side, I had wonderful grandparents. I never got to know the grandparents on my father’s side.
LB: Having nine siblings gets you into the rabble early.
JL: Yeah, we had to get to the table together. If not, you got left out. Our parents worked so hard. We had been tenant farmers, sharecroppers. In 1944, when I was 4 years old, my dad saved $300 and a man sold him 110 acres of land. We still own the land today in Alabama.
LB: That’s so much money for back then. He must have been so proud.
JL: Good people always say, “You know, we need to own something, a piece of the land.” On the farm I fell in love with raising chickens. I wanted to be a minister after Santa Claus brought me a Bible and I learned to read it. We would get all our chickens together in the yard, and I used to preach to them. On one occasion I tried to baptize one. When my mother and father wanted to have a chicken for a meal, I would protest. [laughs] But I got over it.
LB: Can we talk about your suit for a second? You are so elegantly put together. I’ve noticed this freshness is consistent with you.
JL: I liked to look, you know, combed as I was growing up. I wanted to look like a minister.
LB: Do you have a suit and tie that you put on when you want to communicate something or one that just makes you feel great?
JL: Oh, yes. A few days ago it was the birthday of my fraternity, and our colors are blue, so I dressed in blue. In general, I try not to wear a red tie for obvious reasons. One is the guy down the road.
LB: Where do you keep your Presidential Medal of Freedom?
JL: After I was awarded it by President Obama [in 2011], it was in a case at my home in Atlanta. But about two weeks ago we transferred it to a group who is putting it in a case at the Atlanta airport to tell the story of my life for anyone passing through who wants to hear about it.
LB: What’s the first thing you do when you go home to Atlanta?
JL: Well, I have nine cats. A mother cat adopted us, and she started having kittens. They became an extension of the family. We have doghouses for them to live in outside. I never thought growing up that one day I would be going to the supermarket every two to three weeks to buy cat food. It’s not cheap. I have people who go by and feed them when I’m not there.
LB: Have you ever tried preaching to the cats?
JL: No, I just tell them not to fight.
LB: In the current climate what does freedom mean to you?
JL: Freedom means everything. People must be free. We must be free to believe, to think. That’s why I have such a problem with this whole idea of a wall. We shouldn’t be building walls; we should be building bridges to the rest of the world. As Dr. King said, those of us who live on this planet are going to live together as brothers and sisters. If not, we will perish as fools. When you build a wall, it is saying something about who you’re trying to keep out or who you’re trying to keep in. When I saw the pictures of these crying kids being kept in cages, it made me cry. How can the country or people allow this to happen?
LB: What’s your No. 1 congressional priority this year?
JL: Do what I can to help save the country. Save America. Save our democracy. Save the Constitution. I tell my colleagues, “Don’t give up. Don’t give in. Be hopeful. Be optimistic. And this too shall pass.” I believe that. If you fail to believe that change is going to come, then you get lost in a sea of despair and you become bitter. You cannot let that happen.
Photographed by Jennifer Livingston.
For more stories like this, pick up the March issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Feb. 15.