My long-lost conversation with John Lewis on his vision of nonviolence

In this never-before-released interview, the late civil rights leader and congressman talks systemic racism, permanent warfare, extreme poverty and nonviolence as a way of life.

SOURCEWaging Nonviolence

Last summer, after Congressman John Lewis died, I posted a photo on social media of me and John from a memorable afternoon we spent together in his congressional office. It was 26 years ago. We had talked for a while, and then filmed a formal conversation on nonviolence. 

Needless to say, it was one of the greatest days of my exciting life. 

We stayed in touch over the years, and a few years ago, I ran into him in a parking lot in Washington, D.C. “Why don’t you ever come and see me?” he asked. I wanted to respond that he was so famous now, I couldn’t get through his staff. Instead, I promised I would. In fact, I tried hard to get him to join our Campaign Nonviolence grassroots project, and speak at our national conference, but it turned out, by then, he was too sick.

Last summer, I was invited to join the national committee of Selma Jubilee — the annual crossing of the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama — to mark the historic 1965 march led by John Lewis where he and hundreds of others were chased by horses and beaten up. The horrific event led to Martin Luther King’s March to Montgomery and the Voting Rights Act. It is the oldest ongoing civil right march against racism and for justice in the United States.

“If someone had told me when I was marching from Selma to Montgomery that one day I would be in the Congress, I would have said you’re crazy. But you know, it shouldn’t be strange.”

This weekend, March 5-7, marks the 56th anniversary of the Selma march, and the first totally online commemoration. The organizers and I have worked hard since last summer to put together an astonishing three-day online program that will feature over a hundred speakers and participants, including many national leaders (such as Rev. William Barber, Martin Sheen, Rev. Jim Lawson, Kerry Kennedy and Dr. Bernard Lafayette) as well as original foot soldiers from 1965. All of the events are free, but you have to register for it. We expect thousands of people from around the country and world to watch.

Part of the extensive program includes a film series. We were unable to attain the film rights for the recent John Lewis PBS films, so I went looking in my own collection for a copy of the interview I filmed with the great man all those years ago. After having it digitized, I finally watched it for the first time, and the memories immediately flowed back

It was 1995, I was 35-year-old newly ordained priest — fresh out of jail after hammering on a nuclear weapon in a Plowshares disarmament action with Philip Berrigan.  Watching John in the interview, you see him at his best — calm, centered, clear, earnest, kind, gentle and wise, full of the wisdom and peace that comes from a lifetime of redemptive nonviolent suffering love, as King would say. 

Here below, for the first time in print, is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. I offer it in the hope that readers will join the massive online commemoration this weekend to celebrate John’s life and the ongoing movement. We hope to broadcast the video interview sometime during the online events. In the meantime, may it inspire us to keep on marching, organizing and speaking out against systemic racism, permanent warfare, extreme poverty, nuclear weapons and environmental destruction, and to pursue John Lewis’ glorious vision of a new culture of nonviolence. 

A photo from John Dear’s meeting with Rep. John Lewis in 1995. (WNV/John Dear)

Let me start right off and ask you what nonviolence means for you and how you got involved and committed to the life of Christian nonviolence?

I must tell you that I grew up in rural Alabama during the ‘40s and 50s. I grew up in a Christian home where there was a great deal of love. At an early age, I came to appreciate the philosophy and discipline of Christian love. So, I view nonviolence as Christian love in action. It is a part of my faith; it is believing that love is the most powerful force in the universe. And somehow, someway, you have to live it.

Tell me how you got involved in organizing sit-ins against segregation in restaurants and how you formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

I was deeply inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. When I was a young child in Troy, Alabama, about 50 miles south of Montgomery, I would visit Montgomery and I saw signs that said “white men, colored men, white women, colored women, white waiting, colored waiting.” Segregation was the order of the day. And I resented the system of segregation, and I wanted to do something about it. 

The genius of John Lewis’ unyielding nonviolent discipline

So as a student in Nashville — where I was attending the American Baptist Theological Seminary and later as a student at Fisk University — I started studying the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence and got involved in a series of what we called sit-ins and I emerged as one of the student leaders. I literally grew up on a lunch counter stool when I was 19 years old in 1959. 

Later in 1960, we started sitting in on a regular basis, and I got arrested and went to jail. That was a great triumph because jail sort of became a way out. I grew up at a time in the American South when young Blacks were not supposed to come in contact with the law. You were supposed to stay out of jail. It was a bad thing to go to jail. But there was something redemptive about going through this process. I remember being beaten and a lighted cigarette being put out in my hair and thrown off a lunch counter stool before I was arrested, and I had the power because of my belief in Christian love and nonviolence not to strike back.Embed from Getty Images

How about the first Freedom Ride? What were you trying to do there? What happened? 

On the Freedom Ride, we were out to test a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court outlawing segregation in the area of public transportation. So, it was an effort on the part of the 13 of us, seven whites and six Blacks, to ride from Washington, D.C. to Jackson, Mississippi, and on to Louisiana. We were using all of the public facilities, not just the bus, but the waiting rooms, the restrooms and the lunch counters.

I will never forget the night before we left. We had dinner at a local Chinese restaurant in Washington, D.C. I had never had Chinese food before. We were sitting there eating and someone said, “You should eat well tonight because this may be like the Last Supper.” Little did we know — as we traveled into Virginia through North Carolina into South Carolina, through Georgia into Alabama — one of our buses would be burned and people beaten and later a group of us was beaten by an angry mob at a Greyhound bus station in Montgomery. I was left lying unconscious, bleeding, at a Greyhound bus station in Montgomery in the year 1961. Embed from Getty Images

Perhaps one of the turning points in our country’s history was the famous march from Selma. You were one of the leaders of that on Sunday March 7, 1965, and as you led the march of about 600 people across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, you were met by a whole flank of U.S. police and they beat you severely. Tell me what happened that day and what was the outcome of the Selma march.

Well, the Selma march was an attempt to dramatize to the nation and to the world that people of color not only in Selma but throughout the state of Alabama and throughout the South — 11 Southern states really from Virginia to Texas in the old Confederacy — that these people wanted to participate in the democratic process, that they wanted to register and to vote. 

But on that day when 600 of us marched through the streets and came to the apex of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, we saw a sea of blue — Alabama state troopers. They told us in so many words that this was an unlawful march, that we should disperse and go back to the church and less than a minute or so, they said “Troopers advance!” They came toward us, beating us with night sticks, bull whips, tramping us with horses and using tear gas. 

I was at the head of the march, as one of the march leaders, and I was hit in the head with a nightstick, and I had a concussion at the bridge. But that was the turning point because there was a sense of righteous indignation when people saw nonviolent people being beaten. We weren’t armed with guns or sticks. Some of us had knapsacks with an apple, an orange, some books, the Bible. We were bearing witness to something that we thought was right. We all were committed to the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. Most of us had just left church that Sunday afternoon. Because of what happened in Selma that day, the day became known as “Bloody Sunday.”Embed from Getty Images

As you know so well, part of the challenge of nonviolence is to respond nonviolently to personal assault, but to keep on insisting on the truth of justice and peace. Jesus epitomized this, and Gandhi taught us this. How did you respond personally to these police who were beating you and all the people who threatened you during those years in the struggle? What was it like for you to deal with this violence nonviolently?

Well, I believe in the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. I accepted it not simply as a technique or as a tactic, but as a way of life, a way of living. You have to arrive at the point as believers in the Christian faith that in every human being there is a spark of divinity. Every human personality is something sacred, something special. We don’t have a right as another person, or as a nation, to destroy that spark of divinity, that spark of humanity, that is made and created in the image of God. 

I saw Sheriff Clark in Selma or Bull Connor in Birmingham or George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, as victims of the system. We were not out to destroy these men. We were out to destroy a vicious and evil system. So our attack had to be directed against customs, traditions, unjust laws — but not against these individuals. 

Unfortunately, most people, most Christians don’t see Jesus as nonviolent, or God as a God of nonviolence and our faith calling us to uphold the sanctity of life through nonviolence. How do you understand Jesus and God in light of nonviolence?

There’s a verse in the Gospel, I think it’s Matthew 10:34, where Jesus says, “Think not that I have come to bring peace but a sword.” A lot of people like to interpret that to mean a physical sword and try to say that Jesus was making a justification for violence. But I believe he was talking about a spiritual warfare between what is good and what is evil, between what is right and what is wrong, or as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would put, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. 

I happen to believe that God is love, that love is God. Hate is too much of a burden to bear. If you start hating, in the end, how are you going to decide who you are going to hate today and love tomorrow? When you fail to accept the Christian doctrine of love and nonviolence as a way of life, as a way of living, and merely a tactic, it becomes like a faucet that you can turn on and off. Love in action, Christian love, is a better way, a more excellent way, and it’s more redemptive. I don’t know how to explain it, but I somehow came to that point, as I grew in my faith, that this is the way. This is the way out, and the way out is the way in.Embed from Getty Images

You had the privilege of working with so many people in the civil rights movement, but especially with Martin Luther King Jr. Can you tell me what you learned personally about nonviolence from him? 

I learned a great deal from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This man in his own way taught me that love in action is the strongest force, that nothing — nothing — is more powerful than love in action. He taught me to have hope, not to give up, not to give in and not to give out. In the philosophy of nonviolence, in the way of Christian love, you have to have an element of hope, an element of faith. He taught us that. He would say from time to time that if you don’t have hope, you’re already dead, you’re really not here. 

It’s very much in keeping with our Christian faith that if you really believe in love you have to live it. If you believe in the idea of the Beloved Community, then it’s a community of believers that is in keeping with the divine. If you believe it, you have to live it. When I was working with Dr. King, after a while, I began to believe that maybe, just maybe, we could create the Beloved Community. That’s the other thing: It’s possible to create in this life, in this world, a Beloved Society, a Beloved Community, a Beloved World. 

King was cut down right in the prime of life. What would you say his greatest legacy, his greatest contribution, is for all of us?

I think his greatest legacy and contribution is that he taught us how to love, how to live, and really, how to die. You live your life by giving, by serving, by sharing and in the process, you don’t worry. You are consistent, you are true to your faith, to your belief. I often think about Dr. King, that if it hadn’t been for this man, I don’t know where our world would be today. I think he influenced so much in American society and society around the world.

Could you say a word about how you see nonviolent civil disobedience specifically as a tool in the struggle for social change.

Nonviolent civil disobedience is a very powerful weapon. It’s probably one of the most powerful weapons that we have in the arsenal of nonviolent action because you’re literally putting your body on the line. You’re saying you’re willing to disobey a custom, a tradition, or what you consider to be an unjust law and you’re willing to pay the price, you’re willing to suffer, you’re willing to go to jail if necessary and serve your time. 

“For me, nonviolence is one of those immutable principles that you do not deviate from.”

I think there’s something very redemptive about it. There’s something very cleansing about it, to go through all that. In keeping with the philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience, you come to that point where you have to educate the larger society and you keep trying over and over again, and then some time it’s only a core group that’s prepared to go the distance with that. I think it’s being true to the heart of the faith and philosophy and discipline of nonviolence.

Could you share what it’s like for you personally having been arrested and jailed and a leader in civil disobedience, to be here now in the House of Representatives, in the U.S. Congress, which many see as the seat of power in our country and in the world? How do you reconcile all that and still be committed to Christian nonviolence?

Well, if someone had told me when I was sitting in at lunch counters, on the Freedom Ride, marching from Selma to Montgomery, marching on Washington in 1963 with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that one day I would be in the Congress, elected by the good people of Georgia, I would have said you’re crazy, you’re out of your mind, you don’t know what you’re talking about. 

But you know, it shouldn’t be strange, in a sense, for me. I really believe if you let the Almighty use your life, if you turn your life over to God Almighty and try to be persistent, consistent, to be committed to certain immutable principles, and you dedicate your life to service — I see all this then as an extension of my commitment to the philosophy of love and nonviolence. Even in the Congress, even in committee meetings, I speak of love, I talk of the philosophy of nonviolence. It’s a larger arena and it’s still another form of action. 

In your opinion how can Christians use nonviolence to help to end war, end poverty, eradicate hunger and abolish nuclear weapons? How can we use nonviolence to attack all these big global issues of injustice?

There are so many things we can do as Christians. We can lead the way, even as a nation. Those of us who believe in the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence, who believe in Christian love, who believe that it’s redemptive and powerful, we can say to the leaders of our own country, that there is a better way. We can take the lead. 

“I must tell you I have seen a lot of changes in my lifetime. I have witnessed what I like to call ‘a nonviolent revolution’ in our country.”

I’ve said to the president of the United States, for example, on the whole question of the death penalty, “This is not something that a great nation should be proud of. Putting people to death is barbaric. It represents another period in history. We can do better, we can lead the way.” 

I’ve said we can lay down the tools of war, and all the tools of violence. War is an obsolete tool of our foreign policy. I think some place along the way, Christians and all religious leaders and people, we have to say that to our elected officials: “Let’s use our resources to end hunger and poverty, to find cures for the diseases that afflict humankind, to improve the standard of living and the quality of life for all people on this little planet.” I think we have to take the lead in saying all that. 

Can we support the death penalty?

I say to Christians, “If you really believe in love, and that God is a God of love, and if you really believe that we all are created in God’s image, and if you really believe that in every human being there is a spark of divinity, a spark of the divine that is so sacred, then how can you kill anyone? We may have the legislative or judicial power to do that, but we don’t have the moral authority to do that. That should be left to God Almighty.” 

We have to say to all Christians that, as believers, we should take the lead and put an end to all violence — the violence that individuals commit against other individuals and the violence that our nation commits against other nations. We should abolish the tools of war and abolish the tools of putting people to death for capital offenses, whether through the gas chamber, injection or electrocution. 

As you know all too well, racism is alive and well in our country. What would you suggest to Christians, particularly to white Christians in our country, about turning to nonviolence and using nonviolence to fight the sin of racism?

I think that all of us as Christians must use everything at our disposal to speak out against racism and bigotry. The scars and stains of racism are still deeply embedded in our society. When we acquiesce, when we’re silent, we’re helping racism to continue to prosper and to grow. 

We should say as Christians that we’re one family, that we’re sisters and brothers, that we’re one community, that we’re one house.

I work with the homeless in D.C. and many of us in the churches here are working to help disarm our streets and to stop the killings locally. But then a lot of others are working to end war and nuclear weapons. I’m wondering if you could speak about working on both of these. How can we claim to want to disarm our streets when our government is still committed to such global violence?

I understand quite well what you mean. The government tends to send the wrong message to our people. We tend to say to them, “Disarm, stop the killing, get rid of your guns,” and yet at the same time, we continue to arm people around the world and we continue to engage in violence and war. How can we preach one thing and practice something else? To say it’s ok for the government to engage in military action abroad, but you must not engage in violence here? 

In a real sense, I think our foreign policy is a reflection of our domestic policy. That’s why we must say to our nation that we must not continue to use the tools of war and violence in our foreign policy.

So you would agree with Dr. King and others about the consistency of nonviolence all across the spectrum — no to violence on the streets and the death penalty and war and nuclear weapons and in our foreign policy.

I do agree with Martin Luther King, Jr. For me, nonviolence is one of those immutable principles that you do not deviate from.


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