A Conversation with Congressman John Lewis

Washington, DC., Summer 2010—On a day filled with the electricity of high expectations, blazing sunshine and a touch o of the world’s greatest living “martyrs,” the Honorable John Robert Lewis.

In years past, I had interviewed other giants in the Civil Rights Movement—such as Dick Gregory, Dr. Dorothy Height, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Julian Bond, and Andrew Young. But today, I would interview the biggest one of them all.

I entered Congressman Lewis’ 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 and engaged in a 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 circumstance of war: a fog of confusion, casualty and death.

The following are excerpts from our intimate 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 a 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 the voices of The People, not only collectively but also individually, to create change. Would you agree with that?

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.

Note: My interview with the distinguished Congressman left me much to ponder. My reflections on the interview are published in the companion to this volume: Stop Abusing My People: A Warning to Racist and Abusive Police and Politicians. (The War in America – Volume 2). My reflections include commentary on the Congressman’s critique of America’s controversial new president, Donald Trump.