A Conversation with Congressman John Lewis
On a day filled with the electricity of high expectations, blazing sunshine and a touch of wind, I emerged from a darkened subway station and stepped lively to the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill. I was there to meet one of the world’s greatest living “martyrs,” the Honorable John Lewis. I had an appointment to interview him for this book.
I entered his office suite and took a seat in the small waiting area outside his executive office. After a short while, I was escorted into his executive office and was seated at a circular table about the size you would find in a modest dining room. After a few minutes of anticipation, Mr. Lewis entered the room and we began the interview. We engaged in a lengthy discussion about my subject matter.
Mr. Lewis agreed that it is appropriate to define racialized conflicts between law enforcement and black people as an actual war—rife with the typical circumstances of war: an abiding fog of confusion, casualty and death.
The following are excerpts from our warm and lively conversation inside his office, a cavernous space hallowed by radiant ambient sunshine streaming through 20-foot tall windows. The walls of the office were emblazoned with salutatory plaques and stirring black and white pictures that captured the Civil Rights movement in personal terms, like family photos. And of course there was the iconic and disturbing photo of him crossing the Edmond Pettus Bridge, where he was beaten down and bloodied by a contingent of angry and abusive law enforcers.
Edward Sargent: It is an honor to meet you and be in your presence, sir. Thank you for agreeing to talk to me about the ultimate purpose of my book: to use my own experiences to explore the often-tragic relationship between black people and the police and to make proposals that will help America end the conflict. I am also aiming for the book to serve as framework that others can use, especially black men, to fluidly document their experiences and tell their stories. I believe that history has proven that it takes people’s voices to make change. Do you agree?
Congressman Lewis: Yes, absolutely. Based on my own personal experiences in the struggle for social justice, I believe that in order to solve a problem such as racial profiling, police abuse and other behaviors that lead to bad relations between black people and the police, we must have first-person stories that illuminate the problem in ways that compel people on all sides of the issue to listen to and understand each other. This is extremely—extremely—important. We cannot make progress without it. We need people to bear witness. We need people to tell their stories in sufficient detail that it creates the insights we need to get to the root of the problem. Once we do that, we can go about methodically attacking the problem.
Sargent: How do we get people to come forward and speak their truth not just to power—not just to powerful people like you and your colleagues who are running the country—but also to their fellow citizens? How do we move people to open up to each other in deep conversation? Let me say this, and I say this facetiously, but really, will it take an act of Congress to get people energized enough to move in this direction?
Congressman Lewis: It’s certainly a big job what you’re talking about doing, but we should not wait for elected officials and authorities to go to the people and ask them for their statements. We can write down our statements or videotape our statements, and do whatever it takes to put on the record what we have experienced and observed. This is something people can do for themselves. And by doing so, they will bring their fellow Americans to the scenes of incidents of racial profiling so that those who were not there can more clearly see and understand the problem. People need to know what is racial profiling, how it works, what certain police officers say and do when they interact with certain members of our society.
Sargent: And so you really believe that anybody in our society can help make a real difference in the struggle for justice simply by talking about their experiences, observations and opinions?
Congressman Lewis: There is no better way to influence public opinion than by bearing witness to the truth. By lifting your voice, you will stimulate others to step forward to do the same.
Sargent: What responsibility does Congress have to get people to share their truths with each other, to have that national conversation so many leaders have said needs to happen?
Congressman Lewis: We can get people to have that national conversation by demonstrating it ourselves—by taking to the floor of Congress and making our voices heard; by using the media, town halls, and other means. We have to be innovative and we have to keep our eyes on the prize.
Sargent: Sir, in this book, The War in America, I discuss why excessive and selective law enforcement targeted towards black people can aptly be described as war. I am very serious about this analysis and I use my own experiences as a prism through which I can perceive where we are as a nation, where we are going, and how bad things can get, if we don’t take effective measures to end racial profiling, police brutality and police abuse of power. I believe we must take very aggressive measures towards that end.
Congressman Lewis: As long as you are talking about non-violent action, I am with you. As a member of Congress, I will stand with any courageous citizen who non-violently stands his ground against racial profiling. For, We, The People, must stand together to end this war. And, yes, racialized law enforcement can be defined as war, because of the casualties it creates and the terrible psychological and physical scars it leaves on so many.
After Note: Sargent: I chose this interview as my foreword, because there is no greater person to place at the beginning of my work than this warrior of peace.
To the Reader: Thank you for checking out the foreword to my book. The War In America. Would you like to read more? For a limited time, the entire book is available online. Just go the top of this page and Create an Account. There is no charge to create an account. Once you finish the very brief process of creating your account, you will be granted immediate access to the e-Book. The pages are in large type and so it is very easy to read.
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