Film Lets Viewers Walk in Lewis’ Shoes

Posted June 20, 2008 at 4:15pm

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was at the forefront of the civil rights movement, so he has seen firsthand how far the country has come since the time of segregated schools and violence turned on children and peaceful protesters. The possibility of the nation electing a black president this November should be evidence in itself of the progress that has been made in the United States, he said.

“The fact that Barack Obama has emerged as the Democratic nominee with an enormous possibility of being elected president of the United States tells us a great deal,” Lewis said of the Illinois Senator.

But people still tell him they don’t think race issues have improved.

“That’s why I say, ‘Come walk in my shoes,’” he said.

And that is what many Congressmen and Congresswomen are doing: making a pilgrimage to the Alabama towns where their colleague once was taunted, beaten and arrested. The journey is organized by the Faith & Politics Institute and is highlighted in a new documentary from filmmaker Robin Smith, aptly titled “Come Walk in My Shoes.” According to the institute, 100 Members of Congress already have made the trip.

The film made its Congressional debut last week before a bipartisan crowd that included House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also made an appearance, and told the guests gathered in the Lyndon B. Johnson room of the Capitol for the screening that “John Lewis is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met and one of the greatest legislators we’ve had in Washington.”

The documentary moves seamlessly from photos and footage of the civil rights movement, from the march on Washington, sit-ins and crowds gathered in Alabama churches to scenes of Lewis speaking to his fellow Congressmen in the church where he met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The impact of the civil rights movement continues to be evident in the United States, Lewis said, but its legacy also resonates internationally.

Tarek Abuata of Love Thy Neighbor, a group that promotes nonviolence between Israelis and Palestinians and quotes King on its Web site, said he believes many Palestinians can identify with the struggle of African-Americans in the 1960s.

“My hope is to create a critical mass of people trained in nonviolence, to create a movement for civil rights for Palestinians,” he said.

Sayyid M. Syeed, national director in the office for interfaith and community alliances at the Islamic Society of North America, echoed Abuata.

“It’s inspiring for us when we look back at the struggle these people fought, the way they were able to create unity,” he said.

Syeed said he believes religious bigotry, which he sees as the most pressing issue of the day, can be defeated through the same nonviolent means that helped curb racism.

“I have faith that we will be able to show similar solidarity in fighting religious bigotry,” he said. “This is an example from our own history that a monster as big as this can be fought with nonviolent means.”

“Come Walk in My Shoes” will air on PBS periodically for the next four years and is being shown in schools around the country. Smith said the reaction of students who have seen it has been one of curiosity and interest, and a desire to spark change in their own ways.

“The film awakens the idea that if there is something that is troubling you, you could do something about it,” Smith said.

For Lewis, who saw some of the pictures and footage of himself for the first time in the documentary, the film inspired pride and happiness. But he said some parts were difficult to watch.

At one point, the film shows images of a man who was severely beaten because he was part of a freedom ride. The man was Lewis’ seatmate on that trip.

“I know the pain that he suffered,” Lewis said.

Before the screening, Blunt announced to an approving crowd that he and his wife would join Hoyer on the next pilgrimage. He recalled being with Lewis the night of the Iowa caucus and watching the returns together.

Blunt said there was “some hint that some of the things that divided us were behind us.”

He called Lewis the most historic Member of Congress and said he was “a man who was willing to give feet to his prayers.”

Hoyer also praised Lewis, and spoke about the pilgrimage experience.

“I have walked in John Lewis’ shoes, but like every other Member of Congress, I cannot fill those shoes,” he said.

Although the nation has made progress since the days of segregation and intense racism, Lewis acknowledged that there is still work to be done.

“We must still build that greater sense of community — one American family,” he said.

“Come Walk in My Shoes” is available for purchase at videoaction.org.