The Man Who Still Believes He came of age when the civil rights movement was young. Though many have lost their faith in what America could be, U.S. Rep. John R. Lewis is still searching and struggling for that promised land.


WASHINGTON -- The congressman is late. He should have been here a half-hour ago. Where is he?

His day started with an 8 a.m. fund-raising breakfast at One Penn Center in Philadelphia. Then there was an 8:30 a.m. leadership breakfast. After that, a quick stroll to 30th Street Station to catch a train back to D.C., stopping along the way to talk to a white, middle-aged newspaper vendor who had called out to him: "I remember everything you've done over the years. I just want to shake your hand."

He caught the 10:14 a.m. Amtrak to Washington, getting back in time for the Georgia Farm Bureau Federation's luncheon at noon, which overlapped with a Congressional Black Caucus luncheon in the Rayburn Building and was followed by a meeting with the Georgia Society of Anesthesiologists.

Now, it's mid-afternoon, and the congressman is somewhere on Capitol Hill. There's a newspaper reporter and photographer sitting in his outer office. His aides have offered them salted Georgia peanuts, water, the varied refreshments of Coca-Cola Bottling.

A large black-and-white photograph of the congressman striding through Selma, Ala., hangs on one wall.

He was a young man then, marching through history with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy. He choked on tear gas on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, walked into murderous, hate-filled mobs, took more than his share of blows to the head and body. And he lived to tell the tale.

Suddenly, the hall door swings open. This time it is not a reassuring aide saying the congressman is on his way. This time an electricity fills the office. U.S. Rep. John R. Lewis, D-Ga., a compact, fireplug of a man, hustles inside, aides and press officer surrounding him. He apologizes repeatedly, perhaps remembering a lesson from his childhood growing up in Pike County, Ala.: It's not nice to keep people waiting.

He ushers the visitors into his office, apologizes again. There's barely time to catch his breath. No time to sign the dozen or so copies of his newly published memoir, "Walking With the Wind" (Simon and Schuster, $26), which sit stacked on a table. Colleagues and friends have left them for him to autograph. Subtitled "A Memoir of the Movement," the book tells the story of Lewis' life as Freedom Rider, one-time president of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), stalwart soldier and leader in the war to change America.

Twelve years ago, he left his seat on the Atlanta City Council and beat out his old friend, Julian Bond, to represent Georgia's fifth congressional district seat. It was a mighty step for Lewis, who grew up a poor boy in rural Alabama. His people called him "preacher" because he held sermons in the chicken yard.

"Sometimes I think some of those chickens that I used to preach to listen to me better than many of my colleagues in Congress," he says, joking.

Since arriving in Washington, Lewis, 58, has not wavered from his convictions and the teachings learned when he was a college student in Nashville, hungry for a new America.

QUESTION: "What does it mean for you to be a liberal, to be classified as a liberal, today?"

ANSWER: "It means to be on the side of people that need your help and need the help of a caring, sharing and compassionate government. ... I'm not going to run away from my commitment to a truly integrated society, an interracial democracy. I'm not going to run away from my commitment to the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. I think we must continue to move toward an integrated society. To do otherwise, it's not healthy for the American community, and it's not leading toward the building of a sense of community."

Lewis still believes in what he calls the "American family." His sincerity almost seems out of step with the time. Is he hopelessly retro to speak of the American people and the beloved community, and to hold dear the old creeds? He leans in close and offers an explanation:

"You know that song we used to sing, 'Keep your eyes on the Prize'? If you believe in the idea of an integrated society. If you believe in the idea of the beloved community, that should give you some hope and some optimism. And you have to continue to struggle to build that type of society, that type of community."

Despite the steady drumbeat of disaffection, despite the polls that record vastly different views of society, despite the sense in some quarters that integration did as much harm as it did good, despite all this, he still believes.

Yet, even his heart is tried by the nightmare crimes that erupt across the land.

QUESTION: "What is your reaction to the recent dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, which comes like some horror from the 1920s?"

ANSWER: "It made me very sad," he says, a weariness in his voice. "First of all, I said, 'How in the world can three young men be driven to the point, to such a desperate point that they would go out and literally kill another fellow human being the way they did? What is in the American psyche?' ... I would like to think that as a nation and as a people that we have come much farther. But what happened near Jasper, Texas, tends to dramatize the fact that we still have a terrible distance to go before we lay down the burden of race."

Race, the crippling ball and chain the nation drags into the next century. The civil rights movement helped "to bring the dirt, to bring the filth from under the American rug, out of the cracks and corners so we could see it, so we could deal with it," Lewis says.

"Walking With the Wind" is largely about those distant times. Lewis is quick to say the story is not his alone. He pays homage to the others, black and white, young and old, who were fired by a patriotism that did not lean toward the xenophobic "America, love it or leave it" variety, but toward a philosophy of "America, love it and change it, bring it closer to its stated ideal."

Their greatest victory was the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It changed the complexion of American politics.

These days, voter turnout is low. The political process has taken a beating from a generation of scandals. None of this stops Lewis from believing in the power of the ballot. Yet people seem to have forgotten the price paid in blood and tears.

Bloody Sunday - when Alabama state troopers used clubs, bullwhips and C-4 tear gas to turn back Lewis and others who were marching for voting rights - is as far from us now as the Great Depression was from the 1960s. For those with no memory those times, the 1960s must seem like some dinosaur-age of black-and-white television, record players and computers as big as double-wide refrigerators.

"Young people have very little sense of contemporary history, of contemporary struggle, that people had to struggle for this right, that people died for the right to vote, that people went to jail," the congressman says, his voice firm, informed by memory.

Maybe the fight has gone out of us. But what is the prescription for change? The congressman says he supports President Clinton's call for a racial dialogue. At least it gets people talking. What we need, he says, is a revolution of values. And we need to teach nonviolence, not merely in actions, but in attitudes. His solutions recall the "beloved community."

"As Dr. King said in one of his early sermons, 'You've got to rise up and forget about your own circumstances and get involved in the circumstances of others,'" he says. "We have to find a way to put a face on the problem, put a human face on the concerns, on the issues so people will not be afraid to run to that symbol."

A generation ago there was no shortage of human faces and images to embrace. It might have been a flaming Greyhound bus in Anniston, Ala., or James Zwerg, bruised and beaten, saying from a Montgomery, Ala., hospital bed that the Freedom Riders would not be stopped. It might have been an eloquent young preacher in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln, or the bandaged eyes of a little girl who survived the bombing of her church. It might have been Lewis, kneeling in prayerful protest, or standing outside a bus station, his coat spattered with blood. There was no shortage of faces.

"Sometimes it's very hard, and I'm not trying to pull your leg, but sometimes it's very hard and very difficult for me to believe that this really happened to me. That it really did. Because what keeps bothering my very psyche is, 'Why?'" he says. "Why, and what unleashed this sense of hatred and violence upon us?"

A lifetime later, there is still no answer.

"I feel like I grew up sitting down on lunch-counter stools, or riding on a bus," he says. "I feel like I never did the things that the average teen-ager or someone in their 20s would do. It seems like I skipped all of that, and the movement became my cause."

Lewis looks back on the old photographs, the film footage with not-quite disbelief. Yes, it is him with trench coat and backpack. He's the young man with the trim waist and full head of hair. That's him at the head of line with Hosea Williams, staring down the advancing, baton-wielding troopers so long ago.

He was arrested 40 times, beaten, hospitalized. He lost plenty of friends, people like Sammy Young, a 21-year-old SNCC colleague shot down for trying to use the "whites only" restroom at a gas station; and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. And Mickey Schwerner, Andy Goodman and James Chaney, their faces forever linked in an FBI missing-persons poster after they had investigated a church-bombing in Philadelphia, Miss.

"I went back there in the summer of '94 for the first time," Lewis says. "And there's a marker at the site of the old church, where the church was bombed, with the three names on it. And I stood there and cried because I saw their names there for the first time."

QUESTION: "In the book you often talk about the beloved community and you also quote Dr. King's speech, his last speech. Where is the promised land? When are we going to get there? When are we going to find this beloved community?"

ANSWER: "Well, the promised land, in my estimation, is in the distant, distant, distant future. It is not something that will be created tomorrow, or next week, maybe not next year. But it is an all-inclusive community where we respect the worth and dignity of all humankind. And we have to continue to strive and to work toward that beloved community. We have to. I don't think we have another choice. We have to be prepared to create what I call the American family, the American house. One house. One family."

The press officer peeks through the door. A House vote is coming up. The waiting area is crowded. Perhaps the group is from the Georgia Farm Bureau, here for a scheduled 3 p.m. meeting. It is already 3:30 p.m. The congressman is pressed for time. He ends the interview with this thought:

"A lot of young people think nothing's happened, nothing's changed. And so I have to say to them from time to time, 'Come and go with me to Montgomery. Come and go with me to Selma, to Birmingham. Come and walk in my shoes and I'll show you that we do live in a better society. We do live in a better world.'"

Time's up! The press officer will not be put off. There's a quorum call at the Capitol. The congressman bolts from the office, hurries down the hall, breaks into a run, sprints down the stairs and across the street, slowing to a brisk walk, then running again, running up the Capitol's steps and onto the floor of the House of Representatives.

Back in his office, the farm bureau people have to reschedule. There's not enough time. The congressman is supposed to be in Arlington, Va., for a 4:30 p.m. interview with PBS, then there's a dinner with Vice President Al Gore. Last on the list is the Faith and Politics kickoff dinner. Gen. Colin Powell will be there, and the congressman will have another chance to talk about the old convictions and the hard work needed to build his beloved community.

Pub Date: 6/29/98

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