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 >>

Thoughts on the role of religion and politics within the civil rights movement

Lewis addresses the role of religion in the civil rights movement. According to Lewis, by the time of the interview (in 1973), elected officials were beginning to replace religious leaders as spokespeople of the movement. Nevertheless, he asserts that the church continued to be central to the movement and argues that political rhetoric had in many ways adopted religious rhetoric regarding morality and emphasis on the human condition. Lewis concludes with the assertion that maintaining solidarity continued to be crucial and that he believed that eventually people could move beyond the "politics of race."

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:
I really thought the Civil Rights movement was an extension of the church and I think you can see that in the leadership up through '68 with the leadership of Martin Luther King. Basically you were attending a more physical barrier than social barrier. Do you see the leadership of the movement changing from religious leaders, the type like yourself, to political leaders? As you look at it today, the people who are leaders of the black community tend to cite politicians like the conference of black mayors you went to. Is there a real change in the movement from the sense of religious orientation to a sense of political kind of orientation in terms of block voting and electing blacks? Is there a basic change here?
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
I think so. In the speech I made at the conference of black mayors on Friday night I tried to make the point that new leaders of the movement are the politicians, the elected officials, without question. On the other hand a great many of the people that you see being elected are people that came through the Civil Rights movement. Look at Andrew Young; he was a minister. Andy sort of stands out because he was assistant to Martin Luther King and was known. But on local levels, in many many communities where you had a sheriff, a County Commissioner or a constable, some of these young mayors are some of the people who came through the Civil Rights movement. In a real sense, the new leaders in the black community are the elected officials and that's where people are giving their support.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Did this result in a lessening role of the Church?
JOHN LEWIS:
I don't think so because the Church is still one of the base areas; something that is organized. It is visible. And the Church does have a strong hold on the black community, particularly in the South.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
But the rhetoric of the movement has changed. It used to be oriented in moralist and religious terms?
JOHN LEWIS:
Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Today I was thinking of the election of , a black mayor, which was done through coalition politics. But he articulated it in terms of no-growth policy for the city and it had nothing to do with the races, religion or anything else.
JOHN LEWIS:
But even there, I think that black politicians and I think church people-not necessary as a church people but some of the old Civil Rights people, including myself in the number-we would insist that the new black politician, new leaders, be able to inject some of the ethics, some of the morality, maybe that existed in the old Civil Rights movement into the political arena, but not necessarily carry on the rhetoric of the movement. I think some of these guys are trying to do that; rather than just to talk about building buildings and new stadiums, talk about some of the human conditions.'
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
I want to get back to the point of removing physical barriers than removing social barriers and try to think of where you might go in terms of the future. Your effort in this organization to register people and get them to vote, assuming you have reached the point where you have registered all of the blacks you can and urged them to vote-then what happens? Do you think of using the black community as a block vote to achieve power or to use it in a bargaining position? Or do you see it as coalition politics?
JOHN LEWIS:
I see more and more black people being able to coalesce with other segments of the society. I think the recent elections here in this city, in Raleigh, in other communities, point to the fact that the black community is prepared to move in this direction. I think it must move in this direction.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Yet retaining its solidarity?
JOHN LEWIS:
It must retain.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Based on color?
JOHN LEWIS:
Not necessarily based on color, based on certain interests that rare peculiar to the black community that may not be peculiar to the larger community. But, hopefully we are moving beyond the politics of race.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Beyond the politics of race to what?
JOHN LEWIS:
To a type of coalition politics where promising black candidates can run against white condidates and have the support of a total community, of both black and white supporting them. Promising white candidates running and the black community not feel obligated to support that man simply because he is black. We had a situation here, where a black incumbent, civic alderman, running against a white woman incumbent also, who was appointed but the black community gave her the margin of victory because she happened to be the best candidate, the best member of the old board of aldermen.