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Interview With Congressman John Lewis

Meet a Civil Rights Leader: John Lewis

U.S. Congressman John Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia, knows the civil rights struggle well. Raised in rural Alabama in the 1940s and 1950s, Lewis grew up in the heart of the segregated South. As a young man, Lewis became a leader in the growing civil rights movement. Scholastic News editor Karen Kellaher talked to Lewis about the struggle for racial equality in America.

Scholastic News: What are some of your memories of growing up?

John Lewis: When I was growing up, we would sometimes visit the little town of Troy [Alabama]. I saw signs that said "white waiting" and "colored waiting." There were signs everywhere — at the water fountain, at the waiting room in the bus station.

Scholastic News: How did you get involved in the civil rights struggle?

John Lewis: When I was 15 years old and in the tenth grade, I heard of Martin Luther King, Jr. Three years later, when I was 18, I met Dr. King and we became friends. Two years after that I became very involved in the civil rights movement. I was in college at that time. As I got more and more involved, I saw politics as a means of bringing about change.

Scholastic News: I understand that you helped to plan the 1963 March on Washington. How old were you then?

John Lewis: I was 23 years old, and I had just been elected the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the major civil rights groups. The first meeting where the whole idea of the March on Washington came up was held in an office of the White House, with President Kennedy.

Scholastic News: How did you feel the day of the march?

John Lewis: Well, it was a very moving, moving occasion. You just saw hundreds of thousands of people — black and white, young people and old people, men and women, people from all over the country. It was a day that I will never forget as long as I live.

Scholastic News: In what ways do you think things have changed for blacks in this country since the 1963 march?

John Lewis: I would say the country is a different country. It is a better country. The signs I saw when I was growing up are gone and they will not return. In many ways the walls of segregation have been torn down. If someone had told me in 1963 that one day I would be in Congress, I would have said, "You're crazy. You don't know what you're talking about."

Scholastic News: We have many laws that guarantee civil rights for everyone. But what is the reality for African-Americans?

John Lewis: In many instances, the laws have been enforced. We have made the greatest progress in voting. In 1965 in the South, there were fewer than 50 black elected officials. Today there are more than 6,000. Now we have black and white elected officials working together. Today, we have gone beyond just passing laws. Now we have to create a sense that we are one community, one family. Really, we are the American family.

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