Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John Lewis, November 20, 1973. Interview A-0073. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Initial activities in the civil rights movement

Lewis discusses his initial involvement in the civil rights movement. Lewis explains that he first became aware of the movement and the principles of nonviolent protest in 1957 when he became a seminary student at the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee. By 1960, Lewis was an active participant in the movement and he describes his role in the sit-in movement as it unfolded in Nashville that year, paying particular attention to how violence against protesters and the arrests of protesters served to solidify and mobilize the black community.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John Lewis, November 20, 1973. Interview A-0073. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
John Lewis played a very essential role in all of this, and I really just wanted to talk about this whole change and what are some of your experiences and what you have seen, what you feel is significant in what has come about. How did you actually begin, what was your first involvement in what is referred to as the Movement?
JOHN LEWIS:
I grew up in rural Alabama on a farm in Pike County about forty or fifty miles from Montgomery in a strictly segregated world. You had the white world and the black world. Segregated school bus . In '57 I went to Nashville to attend the American Baptist Theological Seminary to study, with my great desire to come to Atlanta to study at Moorehouse but my parents couldn't afford it. I could go to the Seminary and work and so I enrolled in it. The first year I tried to organize a local chapter of N.A.A.C.P.. But the American Baptist Seminary is jointly owned and supported by the Southern Baptist Convention and they didn't like Nashville Baptist and the faculty particularly. The president of the school had some real questions about trying to organize a local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. on the campus. During the school year of '58 and '59 I started attending some non-violent workshops conducted by James Lawson who was then a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School. That went on during the second year, through '59 and '60, and these workshops dealt with the question of philosophy, the discipline of non-violent, the whole history of the struggle in India led by Ghandi and his attempt to organize in South Africa-building it on the whole idea of Christian faith and that type of thing. Late November 1959, we had what we xconsidered test sit-ins in large department stores in downtown Nashville. We had a group of black and white exchange students, African students, students from India who went down and tested the restaurants and lunch counters. When they denied us service we left.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Was this before Greensboro?
JOHN LEWIS:
It was before the Greensboro sit-in of 1960. We came back after the Christmas holidays and continued to have the workshops. Right after February first second or third we received a telephone call from students in North Carolina saying what can you do to support the students in Greensboro. It was not until February seventh that we had the first mass sit-in in Nashville. That was really the beginning of my involvement.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
What happened when you sat in?
JOHN LEWIS:
Well, the first time we took a seat at a lunch counter and we were denied service, they said we don't serve you; you can't be served. It was a great feeling; it was my first real act of protesting against this system of segregation. I sort of had this feeeling for some time that you just wanted to strike a blow for freedom and this was a great sense of pride to be able to sit dow and at the same time become part of an organized effort. We continued the sit-in efforts. We had what we called Tuesdays and Thursdays. We didn't have any classes on those days and we continued to go down to the lunch counters and restaurants to sit-in.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
What would happen when you were denied?
JOHN LEWIS:
We would continue to sit and some days we would stay all day and take turns. A shift of students would stay there until they were forced to close the lunch counters completely. Or we would occupy all of the seats. In some instances, stores like Woolworth's and Kress', McCleland's would just close the stores. And that continued for a period of time. We had mass meetings going on in the larger communities.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Were there any arrests?
JOHN LEWIS:
No. The first arrest in Nashville didn't occur until February 27. This was a day when we had been warned by a local white minister, Will Campbell, who had told us he had word from a reliable source that we would be arrested and that there would be some form of violence. A small group of us, on that day-it was a cold day in Nashville, we even had snow-on that particular day, went down and started sitting in at Woolworth's and later during the day there was some violence on the part of a young white teen-ager who pulled students off the seats or put lighted cigarettes down their backs, that type of thing. We continued to sit.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Was any of that done to you?
JOHN LEWIS:
I was hit, but never a lighted cigarette or anything like that.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Was it painful?
JOHN LEWIS:
Oh yes. We refused to strike back. The night before we had prepared some leaflets and I had written the leaflets myself. A series of do's and don't's that we prepared for the students. We got paper from the American Baptist Seminary and one of the secretary's there ran them off on the mimeograph machine. Each of the students had a leaflet saying what to do and what not to do. As a matter of fact, Senator Javis has a little book and he used these do's and dont's in his book that we had prepared for that particular demonstration. Most of the people that went to jail that day had those leaflets on them. In Nashville, Tennessee on that following Sunday-I guess, that was the twenty-eighth-they reprinted the leaflet. But that was my first arrest, after the violence occurred on February 27th.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Was that the first violent episode?
JOHN LEWIS:
Yes, that was the first violence.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Do you remember how you felt then, both about the violence and the arrest?
JOHN LEWIS:
Well, I think studying and attending the non-violence workshops we had been disciplined to understand, to be willing to adjust to the violence, the pain and the hurt. At the same time we didn't concentrate on what happened to us. But we were there for a purpose and the arrest. It just sort of inspired us. I didn't have any bad feelings about it. I didn't necessarily want to go to jail. But we knew, in a sense, using that particular method really as a tactic at that point that it would help solidify the student community and the black community as a whole. The student community did rally. The people heard that we had been arrested and before the end of the day, five hundred students made it into the downtown area to occupy other stores and restaurants. At the end of the day ninety-eight of us were in jail. There were mass meetings all over the city that Sunday. We fused to come out of jail. We didn't want anyone to go our bond. But early Sunday morning, the colleges and universities there had put up the necessary bail money and we were let go.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
How do you see it now, thirteen years later? Do you feel the same way about it.
JOHN LEWIS:
I feel that what we did was necessary. It helped to start something. And if I had to do it all over again, I would. To me, it gave the feeling of being part of a crusade, sort of a movement. It was just not another angle. It was part of a process and after that particular demonstration, there was a series of other demonstrations in Nashville. There were other arrests, other acts of violence, particularly during the month of March and April. We had a bombing. One of the attornies that had been defending us, I think it was April 19th, 1960, about six o'clock in the morning, the home of Z. Alexander Looby that was one of the attornies for the Legal Defense Fund, who taught part-time at Fisk, his home was bombed. He lived across the street from Meharry Medical College and the bomb impact broke the windows of the school. About seven o'clock we had a meeting with this group of students called the Central Committee of the Nashville Student Movement, which represented students from Fisk, American Baptist, Tennessee State, Peabody, Vanderbilt., We all met and decided that we would have a mass march on City Hall in response the the bombing of attorney home. We sent the Mayor a telegram saying to him to meet us on the steps of the City Hall by noon. By noon we had more than five thousand students and community people marching on City Hall and the mayor came and spoke. It was at that point that the mayor of Nashville made that he thought that the merchants should agree to desegregate downtown Nashville. That was the turning point. In early May, the lunch counters and restaurants in question did desegregate. It was period of negotiation and we had a period where we didn't demonstrate at these particular restaurants.