Civil rights activist urges 'sense of optimism' Georgia congressman recalls 1960s struggle


A national civil rights pioneer exhorted a Baltimore audience "to rebuild the sense of optimism" that characterized the movement during its years of struggle and initial victory in the 1960s.

Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat who represents Georgia's 5th District, issued a stirring account of his youth spent leading protests and fighting for voting rights. He addressed about 140 people last night in an appearance at Baltimore Urban League's headquarters in the Orchard Street Church in the 500 block of Orchard St.

Commenting on the present-day atmosphere in Congress, Lewis said, "The Civil Rights Act would have a hard and difficult time passing today. We need to make a little noise, a little creative tension. We must not get lost in a sea of despair."

Lewis, who signed copies of "Walking with the Wind," his memoir of the Civil Rights Movement, recalled the summer of 1963, when he served as the 23-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a group he helped form.

"I saw it -- the bitter fruits of racial discrimination. I was told that colored people were not allowed to get a library card," he said.

He spent weeks that summer in Cambridge with Eastern Shore civil rights activist Gloria Richardson. They led marches to end the racial segregation in places of public accommodation. The Maryland National Guard was called up.

Eventually, then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy (whose daughter, Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend also spoke last night) summoned all the parties to his office in Washington to mediate a Cambridge desegregation agreement.

"I remember we took time out to watch Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston on television, then we went back to the table," Lewis said. The agreement was eventually signed.

Lewis' main remarks focused on historic events during the 1960s when as a student he was recruited to the movement by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. Ralph Abernathy. Before long, the congressman was involved with protests and sit-in demonstrations in the Deep South and was arrested many times.

"When I was arrested, I felt free. I felt liberated," Lewis said.

He recounted the events of "Bloody Sunday," March 7, 1965, when about 525 marchers attempted to cross a bridge across the Alabama River at Selma. State police beat the leaders of the march, and Lewis suffered a concussion.

Speaking about race relations today, Lewis said, "I don't think the civil rights movement is behind the times. We must stay focused. We must help rebuild a coalition of conscience. There is a a major role for all Americans to play -- race is an American issue."

Pub Date: 6/24/98

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