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Rep. John Lewis placed three chickens on the table in his office. They never fluttered, pecked or shrieked, just sat idly on a solid round table.
“I bought this at an auction. I think there’s a little hen over in this one,” Lewis said, walking over to a wooden cabinet with glass doors.
“My first nonviolent protest was when my mother and father wanted [me] to kill the chickens that we raised,” said Lewis, one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a Democratic House Member from Georgia since 1987.
He looks at the iron statuettes and glass figures as if each of them were one of the chickens he practiced preaching to as a kid growing up on the farm in Troy, Ala. “I keep the chickens around to remind me of another period in my life,” he said.
That period was a time he wants to hold on to, a part of his childhood he says was stolen from him.
The chickens represent a lesson in patience, one of the six life lessons that Lewis ponders in his new book, “Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change.”
“It’s not a book so much about my past or my history,” he said in an interview. “It’s not a memoir or a biographical sketch. It’s about ideas; it’s about lessons I learned that guided me throughout my early days and through the civil rights movement.”
Faith and Redemption
Propped up against a stack of enlarged photos is one from March 7, 1965.
“Six hundred of us walked across that Alabama bridge, and a few minutes after that point, this picture was taken,” Lewis said of the photo in his hand, from “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Ala., when nonviolent marchers were attacked and beaten by state and local police.
“During the Freedom Rides, during the sit-ins, during the march from Selma to Montgomery, when we crossed that bridge, we were prepared to die,” Lewis said.
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.
“The struggle is not a struggle that lasts for one day or one year or one month, it’s a struggle of a lifetime.”
Lewis’ struggle became visible to millions that day in Selma, but it didn’t end that day.
“That was one bridge, crossing one river, but we have other bridges to cross,” he said, “other rivers to cross.”