A Conversation with the Honorable Congressman John Lewis
Washington, D.C.—On a June day filled with blazing sunshine and strong wind swirls, I emerged from a darkened subway station beneath Capitol Hill and stepped purposefully over to the Cannon House Office Building. I was there to interview one of the world’s greatest living “martyrs,” the Honorable John Robert Lewis.
During my writing career, which includes more than 15 years working as a newspaper journalist, beginning as a teen-aged reporter writing for highly respected weekly newspapers—The Washington Informer and The St. Louis American—and ultimately as a staff writer for the renowned Washington Post, I have key-stroked more than 1,000 articles and interviewed hundreds of people—some famous, others not famous and some downright infamous.
I’ve interviewed giants in the Civil Rights Movement such as Dick Gregory, Dr. Dorothy Height, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Dr. Martin Luther King’s righthand man, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Today, I would interview the Special One, the one whose self-sacrificial dedication is emblematic of all oppressed people’s quest for justice and unfettered freedom.
I entered Congressman Lewis’ office suite and took a seat in the cozy waiting area outside his executive office. While there, I enjoyed a casual conversation with Jacob Gillison, the office manager/scheduler who had helped me arrange the interview, which he described as my opportunity to discuss with the congressman “issues and concerns that matter greatly to … this great country we live in.”
A Bag of Peanuts Puts Georgia on My Mind
Gillison, tall and dapper, offered me a red and white palm-size souvenir pack of Georgia peanuts. I thought that was a very cool way to recognize the contributions that the congressman’s home state has made to the culture and industry of United States. As I smiled and looked down at the bag of nuts in my left hand, I stroked my chin with my right hand and thoughts of Georgia entered my mind.
I first thought of two legendary Georgia heroes: One, a black man named George Washington Carver, who developed more than 300 uses of the peanut and is known as the “father of the peanut industry;” and the other, a white man names James Earl “Jimmy” Carter Jr., who planted and harvested peanuts on his farm, and was elected the 39th president of the United States.
Then I thought of Stone Mountain. Standing isolated, about 25 miles outside of Atlanta, Stone Mountain rises 825 feet above the ground and is much taller than the 555-foot tall Washington Monument. As picturesque as the dark grey Stone Mountain is, it is also a notorious, 888-foot-wide behemoth that was perverted into a Ku Klux Klan monument in 1915. I visited the park that sprawls at the base of the mountain years ago on a family vacation. I recall the disgust I felt when I looked up towards the top of the mountain. I knew that while thousands of white people—men and women, boys and girls, and no babies as well—gathered in the park, when night fell, white men, intoxicated with hate, kidnapped black people, burned crosses and demonically threw the defenseless human beings to their deaths. Giant images of three avowed racist confederate leaders are grotesquely carved into the front-facing side of the mountain, memorializing forever white hatred towards my people.
Dr. King referenced the natural wonder-turned instrument of terror in his I Have a Dream speech on August 28, 1963. Very likely, he had Stone Mountain in mind when he said he had “faith” that when he went “back to the South,” he and others fighting for racial justice would be able to “hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.” Near the very end of the speech he explicitly referenced the behemoth, stating: “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.”
Gillison interrupted my Georgia-peanut inspired ruminating. “Mr. Sargent! The congressman will see you now,” he said. He then escorted me into the congressman’s spacious executive office and, exuding the warmest southern hospitality, smiled and motioned for me to be seated again, this time at a small circular table about the size that would be reserved for a party of four in a nice restaurant.
A Gentle Handshake
Gillison exited the room and shut the door. Shortly after, Mr. Lewis entered the room. I stood to greet him. He had a gentle handshake. “Please have a seat,” he said, motioning for me to sit back down. He sat to my right. We began a discussion about the subject matter of this book, which as stated in the Foreword, is the relationship between the police and black people, especially black men.
During the interview, Mr. Lewis agreed with my premise—that it is appropriate to define the tragic conflicts between law enforcement and black people as an actual war—a war marked by police attacks and heated acts of resistance by black people.
Racist and abusive law enforcement was a tribulation which he famously endured firsthand on Bloody Sunday in Birmingham Alabama, January 30, 1972. He was also very well versed in the resistance, having participated in hundreds of acts of non-violence, from marching in the streets to debating his congressional colleagues on the floor of the House of Representatives. He has also lent his support to legislation and court cases against police brutality and for years has loudly bemoaned the widespread casualties, rampant unaccountability and other tell-tale evidence of war throughout the justice system.
Surrounded by the History of a Unique American
Occasionally while speaking with him, I scanned the walls of his office, a cavernous space brightened by ambient sunshine streaming through the 10-foot tall windows behind his modest desk. The walls of his office were emblazoned with colorful scenic paintings, salutatory plaques, historic artifacts and stirring black-and-white pictures that captured the historic, world-renowned Civil Rights movement in personal terms, like family photos. Of course, there was the iconic and disturbing photo of him crossing the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Birmingham, where he was beaten down and bloodied by a contingent of angry law enforcers that, for all practical purposes, was an armed brigade of hatred.
I see a young John Lewis in the picture, on the front lines of the massive march. There is a resolute expression on his face as he walks towards the enemy with his hands inside of his tan trench coat, bookbag on his back and his mind contemplating what he was about to experience. Surely, he realized he was walking into battle unarmed.
Now, I look to my right, and I see that same face, three decades later. It is battle tested, yet it still exudes the same resolute expression. I look into John Lewis’ puffy bulldog eyes and nod towards him in deepest respect.
People need to know what racial profiling is,
how it works and what certain police officers
say and do
when they interact
with certain members
of our society.
– John Lewis –
I ask Congressman Lewis question after question.
He answers them all.
The following is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Edward Sargent: It is an honor to meet you and be in your presence, sir. Thank you for agreeing to talk with me about my book, The War in America.
Congressman Lewis: I am happy to speak with you. Tell me about your book.
Sargent: Thank you, sir. The book aims to create a new narrative framework that others can use, especially black men, to fluidly tell their stories about their encounters with law enforcement. I believe that history has proven that the voices of The People, collectively as well as individually, create lasting change. Would you agree with that?
Congressman Lewis: Yes, absolutely. Based on my 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 so that the narratives create the insights we need to see 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 to talk to each other about race?
This Is Something People Can Do for Themselves
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 take their fellow Americans to the scenes of racial profiling so that those who were not there can more clearly see and understand the problem. People need to know what racial profiling is, how it works, and 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 sharing 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 The War in America, I discuss why excessive and selective law enforcement targeting black people can aptly be described as war. I also discuss why it is important to make that distinction. I use my own experiences, researching and enduring police brutality, as a prism through which I am able to envision where America is going and how bad things can get, if we don’t take measures to end police abuse of power. I believe we must take very aggressive measures towards that end.
We, The People, Must Stand Together to End this War
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.
Sargent: Congressman, do you agree that it is accurate to describe racist and abusive law enforcement as an actual war?
Congressman Lewis: Yes, I do. 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. We, The People, must stand together to end this war.
Note: My interview with the distinguished Congressman left me with much to ponder. More of his quotes as well as my reflections on the interview are published in this book’s companion volumes: The War in America Volume 2: Disrespect Black People at Your Own Risk – A Warning to Racist and Abusive Police and Politicians; and Volume 3: The Black Man’s Big …. Weapon – A Play about Taking Decisive Action to End Racist and Abusive Law Enforcement.