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Lewis Shares Story of His Struggles

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
In Rep. John Lewis’ new book, “Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change,” he describes his hopes for young activists and the challenges they face.

In “Across That Bridge,” Lewis’ lesson on faith amounts to the idea that faith has the power to bring you through the worst that you can imagine. But one of his greatest tests of faith didn’t come on that day at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Instead, it was a 40-day incarceration in Parchman Farm, the Mississippi penitentiary and one of the most brutal maximum security prisons in the country at that time. He details that struggle as “the most difficult, yet powerful work” of the era.

He saves the last chapter in his book for one of the most important, and humbling, life lessons: reconciliation. 

In May 1961, Lewis was on a Freedom Ride through the segregated South. When they got off the bus in Rock Hill, S.C., they were attacked. “[We] started through the so-called white waiting room and this group of men came up to us and beat us, leaving us in a pool of blood.”

Almost 47 years later, in February 2008, one of the men who attacked him a lifetime ago came to Room 508 in the Cannon House Office Building, Lewis’ Washington, D.C., office. 

“He came to my office with his son [and] said, ‘Mr. Lewis, I’m one of the people that beat you, that attacked you. Will you please forgive me?’” Lewis said. 

The attacker’s son was the one who pressed his father to find the courage to come. After he apologized, the man began to cry. So did his son. Then Lewis started crying. When the meeting ended, they all hugged.

“I’ve seen him four different times since then, and [today] he calls me brother,” Lewis said.  

‘Struggle of a Lifetime’

Lewis was a teenager when he met Martin Luther
King Jr. after first listening to one of his sermons on the radio, a moment that energized his belief in change through nonviolence. 

Through the lessons in “Across That Bridge,” he talks about his hopes for young activists and the challenges they face. 

“In order to transform the larger society, you first have to transform yourself,” he said. 

The only living survivor of the six major leaders of the civil rights movement also contemplates the role of the modern-day movement. 

To conjure up just one issue to inscribe on the banner as the new challenge for civil rights activists is a daunting one, even for Lewis. 

“There are so many unmet needs,” Lewis said.

In “Across That Bridge,” he writes that one movement will never offer “all the growth humanity needs to experience” and explains that there is still a long way to travel along the arc of the moral universe.

In his office, he touches the foot of one of the hen statuettes and we instantly go back to Troy, to the 8-year-old boy who preached to the chickens.

“So you take a setting hen, you place 15 eggs, or 12 or 13, under the setting hen, the little chicks are not going to hatch in one or two days, it could take three long weeks,” Lewis said.

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