As if to underscore his profound relevance in today’s society, civil rights hero and Georgia Congressman John Lewis was drawn into the gun debate this week by a radio talk show host’s clueless remark:
“If a lot of African-Americans back in the ’60s had guns and the legal right to use them for self-defense, you think they would have needed Selma?” Rush Limbaugh continued, “If John Lewis, who says he was beat upside the head, if John Lewis had had a gun, would he have been beat upside the head on the bridge?”
Remarkably, Rep. Lewis took the time to issue a thoughtful answer:
“Our goal in the Civil Rights Movement was not to injure or destroy but to build a sense of community, to reconcile people to the true oneness of all humanity,” said Rep. John Lewis. “African Americans in the 60s could have chosen to arm themselves, but we made a conscious decision not to. We were convinced that peace could not be achieved through violence. Violence begets violence, and we believed the only way to achieve peaceful ends was through peaceful means. We took a stand against an unjust system, and we decided to use this faith as our shield and the power of compassion as our defense.
“And that is why this nation celebrates the genius and the elegance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s work and philosophy. Through the power of non-violent action, Dr. King accomplished something that no movement, no action of government, no war, no legislation, or strategy of politics had ever achieved in this nation’s history. It was non-violence that not only brought an end to legalized segregation and racial discrimination, but Dr. King’s peaceful work changed the hearts of millions of Americans who stood up for justice and rejected the injury of violence forever.”
Yet another demonstration of the historical insight, combined with the kind of profound wisdom that’s earned not in an air-conditioned radio studio but in the streets of struggle, that makes it so important that we hear from Rep. Lewis as we mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the second inauguration of our first African-American president on Monday.
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RUSH TRANSCRIPT: JOHN LEWIS[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: It’s no consolation, but invariably, it is times of national tragedy that give us national heroes. So it is with the stain on our national conscience that is racism. Some of those who rose to oppose this evil, both Black and White, were struck down. Others live on and hold a special place in our society.
One such surviving hero is John Lewis, who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and then went on to serve as US Congressman from Georgia, a seat he holds today. Despite grieving the loss of his wife of 44 years, Lillian, who passed away on New Year’s Eve, Rep. Lewis was kind enough to talk with me about Dr. King’s legacy, and the significance of Barack Obama’s inauguration for a second term as president.
John, thank you so much for being here with me on State of Belief Radio.[REP. JOHN LEWIS, GUEST]: Hi, how ya doing. [WG]:I’m doing alright, John, thanks for asking. Frankly, I have grieved with you and thought about you. I haven’t seen you on the plane lately, and I haven’t run into you somewhere like we usually do. But honestly, I can’t imagine what kind of grief you’re experiencing, what kind of questions you’re asking. But I’m thinking of you; indeed, I’m praying for you. [JL]: Well, I appreciate that very much, very much, my friend. [WG]: This is such a unique moment: Martin Luther King’s birthday celebration, the inauguration of the first Black president to his second term in office; and honestly, I just really wanted to talk with you. You are the person I associate with this kind of moment, and I longed to know what you would be saying about it. When you hear me talk like that about what’s happening and about your role in all of this, what are your thoughts about Monday? [JL]: It is very moving that as we celebrate the official holiday for Dr. King, we will be inaugurating the first African-American president for his second term. It’s like fate and history coming together. At the same time this year, during this year, we will be celebrating, or commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. I’ve said on many occasions that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, but Martin Luther King, Jr. liberated a nation. And for President Barack Obama to be using the bible of Abraham Lincoln, and the bible of Martin Luther King, Jr. to take the oath of office – it says something about almost divine intervention. It says something about the spirit of history. Only God Almighty can make this happen: that the sons and daughters of slaves, the sons and daughters of slaveholders can come together and embrace the greatness of this moment, of these moments, this period, this time – and we all should embrace it. [WG]: John, when you were sitting by that bridge down in Selma, Alabama, wiping blood from your head because of the strikes against your face of those who were against you and civil rights, did you ever think this day would come? [JL]: 48 years ago, during the attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery, I never, ever thought that I would live to see a day like we’re witnessing now. I couldn’t believe in the possibility – but it’s here! And we’re seeing it. So that’s why, from time to time, I shed tears of joy and happiness, for the distance we’ve come, for the progress we’ve made, and for those that didn’t live to see this day, they didn’t live to see this moment. [WG]: John, you know, you knew Martin Luther King, Jr. very well. A lot of us knew him, but at a distance; you knew him up colse. Sometimes, now, as I think about those days, I worry that there are going to be a lot of people who only read this in a history book, or see it on a video, and they’re not going, perhaps, to remember the great gift that this man brought to this nation with non-violence. I wonder if there’s a story about your time with Martin Luther King, Jr., a personal story, that none of us would ever know, but that you could share with us today that all of us might know him more personally; might know him more intimately. [JL]: The only story that I could tell that means so much to me personally: back in 1957 when I finished high school at the age of 17, I wanted to attend a little college about ten miles from my home called Troy State College. It didn’t admit Black students. I grew up very poor, and I didn’t have the resources to go away to school, and I thought that it would be cheaper and wouldn’t be a burden on my parents if I just had an opportunity to go to this little school. So I wrote a letter to Dr. King, and told him I needed his help to go to Troy State College.
He wrote me back, and sent me a round-trip Greyhound bus ticket, and invited me to come to Montgomery to meet with him. I didn’t tell my mother, my father, even my sisters or brothers, even my teachers that I sent this letter to Dr. King. But Dr. King responded, and invited me to come to Montgomery!
In the meantime, I went away to Nashville, to a little school called American Baptist College. And I told one of my teachers that I’d been in contact with Dr. King, and this teacher was a friend of Dr. King’s; they both had graduated from Moorehouse College together in Atlanta. And Martin Luther King, Jr. got back in touch with me and suggested, when I was home for spring break, to come and see him.
On a Saturday morning in March of 1958, my father drove me to the Greyhound bus station. I boarded a bus, and traveled to Montgomery. And a young lawyer by the name of Fred Gray, who then lived in Tuskegee, met me at the Greyhound bus station and drove me to the First Baptist Church in downtown Montgomery, pastored by the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and ushered me into the pastor’s study, the office of the church. I saw Dr. King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy standing by a desk. I was so scared. I didn’t know what to say or what to do. And Dr. King spoke up and said, “Are you the boy from Troy? Are you John Lewis?” And I said to Dr. King, “I am John Robert Lewis,” I gave him my whole name. And that was the beginning of my relationship.
Now, he didn’t know me; he didn’t know me from anyone. From Adam’s housecat. But he took the time to invite me to come up and talk with him about my interest in going to Troy State. And from that moment we became friends. And I was inspired to become part of the movement, to work with him. And if it hadn’t been for Dr. King, I don’t know what would have happened to me. I don’t know what would have happened to so many people; I don’t know what would have happened to our nation. He really freed and liberated all of us, Black and White.[WG]: John, one more question – you and I have talked about this at other times: we’ve made a lot of progress, but we’re not there yet. On Monday, as the people of this nation watch the inauguration and celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., what is your word for us as we watch and celebrate? [JL]: My simple message would be one of not getting trapped in the ceremonies, but think about what this means to America, what this means to the whole world. Think about the message of Dr. King, the message of love. The message of faith, the message of hope, the message of peace; the way of non-violence. That we must be our brother’s and our sister’s keeper. That we must look out for those that have been left out and left behind. And that maybe, just maybe, if we do what we must do, and do it right, and do it in love, in looking out for all humankind, then just maybe, just maybe, America could emerge as a model for the rest of the world. Dr. King would say, in the final analysis, we are one people; we are one family; we are one house. We’re and American house, but we’re also the World’s house. We all live in the same place. [WG]: Congressman John Lewis. John, I have told you before, you are a hero of singular importance to me, and, honestly, there is nobody but you that I would rather talk with about what’s going on in our nation this coming Monday. But it’s always an honor to talk with you, and it’s always inspirational to talk with you; and amid your grieving and keeping a busy schedule, I am so very grateful to you for taking time to do this interview, and to let the people who listen to State of Belief hear the depths of your wisdom. Thank you. [JL]: Happy to do it. Thank you so much.
State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.
Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.
Author of more than 20 books, including First Freedom First: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy leads the national non-partisan grassroots and educational organization Interfaith Alliance and serves as Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana.
In addition to being a prolific writer, Dr. Gaddy hosts the weekly State of Belief radio program, where he explores the role of religion in the life of the nation by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America, while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Dr. Gaddy provides regular commentary to the national media on issues relating to religion and politics. He has appeared on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show and Hardball, NBC’s Nightly News and Dateline, PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, ABC’s World News, and CNN’s American Morning. Former host of Morally Speaking on NBC affiliate KTVE in Monroe, Louisiana, Dr. Gaddy is a regular contributor to mainstream and religious news outlets.
While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Dr. Gaddy emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is a past president of the Alliance of Baptists and has been a 20-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance and member of the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100. Rev. Gaddy currently serves on the White House task force on the reform of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Dr. Gaddy served in many SBC leadership roles including as a member of the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-84 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-77.
Dr. Gaddy received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.