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On Monday we spoke with contemporaries of the late Rep. John Lewis, who reflected on the life and legacy of the civil rights icon and long-serving "conscience of Congress." Among them was Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., who spoke about his close friendship with Lewis, their work together as student organizers, the ongoing struggle for equal voting rights, and much more.
Listen to the conversation, and read along with Rev. Jackson, who joined us 18 minutes into the program.
Transcript: Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., On His Friend John Lewis
MEGHNA: I'd like to turn now to the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. He's the founder of the Rainbow Coalition, a former presidential candidate and, of course, longtime civil rights activist and icon as well. He worked alongside Congressman Lewis for decades. He was also, as people should remember, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on the day Dr. King was assassinated. Reverend Jackson, welcome to the program.
REV. JACKSON: Good to hear your voice, Meghna.
MEGHNA: So, Reverend Jackson, first of all, tell us, what is it that you will miss most in your friend John Lewis?
REV. JACKSON: We’d been together since 1960, when we were both sit-in leaders. I had known John for 60 years. I miss being able to call him on the phone, or get a call from him. I’ll tell you one of the mistakes being made in the analysis, is that John joined the movement after 58 years of legal apartheid in America, the “separate but equal decision” in Plessy v. Ferguson, Thurgood Marshall led the drive... to make apartheid illegal in 1954. Look up May 17, 1954 to August 6, 1965 [the period between the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas and the date President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965].
Let me put it this way: I asked Mrs. [Rosa] Parks one day, why did you sit in? She said, ‘Well, we’re testing the effectiveness of nonviolence. And so I thought about going to the back of the bus, but after Emmitt Till, I couldn’t go back.’ [Emmitt Till was murdered on August 28, 1955. Rosa Parks was jailed for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus on December 1, 1955.]
So, John joined Dr. King, who joined Rosa Parks. It was about protesting the law. It took us eight years to get to public accommodation from the back of the bus, in 1964. John joined and took it all the way to its conclusion. [Rev. Jackson is referencing the time period between the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which took place from December 5, 1955 to December 20, 1956, and the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.]
"The ‘65 Voting Rights Act was when democracy was born. ... The birthplace of democracy is Selma, Alabama, not Philadelphia, Pennsylvania."Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr.
The other thing is, the ‘65 Voting Rights Act was when democracy was born in Selma, Alabama. Not in Philadelphia — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania [where the Constitution was written in 1787] was about ideals. But only white male landowners could vote. And there was no value in that. White women couldn’t vote. Blacks couldn’t vote. And so out of Selma, blacks could vote for the first time in 85 years [the planned Selma to Montgomery march of 1965 ended in Bloody Sunday, and led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act that same year.] And then all the rest. 18-year olds on campuses, Native American people. The birthplace of democracy is Selma, Alabama, not Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
MEGHNA: So, Reverend Jackson, your phone line’s a little shaky here, so I just want to recap a tiny bit. If people couldn't hear all of it, you talked about Plessy v. Ferguson and you essentially just gave us a history of the work and fight to expand that American ideal that you were talking about.
REV. JACKSON: The frame of May 17, 1954 to August 1965, is the frame when John wrote to Dr. King, and he’s the ‘boy from Troy’. Dr. King had joined the movement led by Thurgood Marshall, the legal foundation, the huge decision. We were legally inferior until ‘54 [when the "separate but equal" decision in Plessy v. Ferguson was struck down in Brown v. Board of Education]. The states’ rights barbarism abounded, and there were no further protections from denying the right to vote, or putting us in the back of the bus. The day Dr. King spoke in Washington and John Lewis spoke [during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963], from Florida to Maryland, we couldn’t use a single public toilet … John was a part of a struggle that had mature meaning. Those who would fight today must hook in to a struggle that has lasting value.
MEGHNA: To your point, Mr. Lewis was, what, he was 17 when he first wrote to Dr. King because he wanted to go to what's now called Troy University. So I take your point very, very well, Reverend Jackson. How do you view that, what we should see as Congressman Lewis’ role in that bigger historical movement that you're talking about?
REV. JACKSON: He joined the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference]. In 1960, sit-ins took place in Greensboro, North Carolina. They were the first. Students formed SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] at Shaw University in the spring of that year. I hooked up with John in the fall of that year, 1960. And SNCC was connected to the other civil rights organization … they joined a movement that was already in progress… they joined the movement to see a greater conclusion, to get youth marching around the country.
"[John Lewis] suffered the most, endured the most. John was a long-distance runner."Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr.
And so John, with his courage and with his willingness to suffer — he was the valedictorian of our class. I was a student in 1960 myself, but John was valedictorian of our class. He suffered the most, endured the most. John was a long-distance runner.
MEGHNA: A long-distance runner. Do you have a favorite memory of Congressman Lewis, that you think sort of really epitomizes the kind of man he was?
REV. JACKSON: Well, you were talking about C.T. Vivian, dying the same day. C.T. moved from Missouri to Macomb. C.T. sat-in in 1947 in Macomb, Illinois, eight years before Montgomery, fourteen years before the sit-ins. [Rev. Jackson is referencing the sit-ins that Vivian led in Peoria, Illinois. See: C.T. Vivian’s first professional job was as a recreation director for the Carver Community Center in Peoria, Illinois. In 1947 Vivian lead his first sit-in demonstrations, which successfully integrated Peoria's Barton’s Cafeteria, thereby winning his first non-violent, direct-action movement.]
We started talking with guys who had been in that circle for a long time. I remember sitting around talking about the history of our society … and that’s why I urge those with Black Lives matter to be rooted in an ongoing struggle. We got the right to vote in ‘65, but then in 2013 the Roberts Court decapitated it, took away its sting and federal protections. We must fight for the Constitutional right to vote. If the Black Lives Matter movement gets cheated the Constitutional right to vote, it’ll mean the devil’s imprint in time.
We have 50 separate state elections — we don’t have a national election, we have 50 elections. Each state has its own apparatus: one for Washington, one for Mississippi, one for Seattle and one for Miami. We need a national election, with guidelines that affirm about the right to vote.
"I hope that this movement today will not focus just on police, but on voting power. ... The focus on police to me is like the epidermis. But politics is the bone marrow of this thing."Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr.
I hope that this movement today will not focus just on police, but on voting power, because police patrol us — or they control us. Politicians determine the behavior of the police; police don’t determine the behavior of politicians. So politicians… for example in Minnesota where George Floyd was killed, I met with the governor and met with the prosecutor from the county.
He could do nothing about the guy who killed George Floyd. Well, we were able to get Keith Ellison, the state Attorney General — it’s a majority-white state and he’s the state Attorney General — he arrested the four and charged them. First time a white officer had been in jail ever for killing a black in Minnesota. Politics determine police behavior. When a young man was killed in Atlanta, Georgia, [Fulton Country District Attorney] Paul Howard was elected. Paul Howard charged him with murder. So, the focus on police to me is like the epidermis. But politics is the bone marrow of this thing, those who legislate emerging priorities.
MEGHNA: I've just got a minute or two left with you, Reverend Jackson. I just want to ask one more question. On Saturday, you put out a statement about Congressman Lewis. You said he is “what patriotism and courage look like.” Can you just tell us a little bit more about the character of this man that you knew so well?
REV. JACKSON: Well, to be willing to ride the Freedom Buses. I remember in the South when all the bus drivers locally were white, and where the Greyhound buses were white, and you had to sit in the colored section. The Freedom Rides, which we used to call them, was a dangerous mission. They set the bus on fire in Alabama. John was on a bus from Rochelle, South Carolina and Alabama, it was a real risk. Matter of fact when they came to Atlanta, Dr. King discouraged them from taking it further south. Danger, John took the danger. He was on a burning bus before he was on a burning bridge.
To be willing to ride the Freedom Buses. ... It was a real risk. ... John took the danger. He was on a burning bus before he was on a burning bridge."Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr.
I want to say something about George Wallace [then governor of Alabama]. George, we were at prayer before he died. I met with him. George, he had more blacks in his cabinet at the time than other southern governors. So we talked, and I said ‘Why did you turn the dogs loose on all the marchers?’ And he said, ‘I did them a favor.’ I said, ‘Favor?’ He said, ‘If I had not let the troops beat up the mob, the mob would have been worse.’ It never occurred to him to disperse the mob. He just beat the marchers. That was the kind of backwards confederate thinking we were dealing with.
So, that Sunday, we didn’t anticipate the confrontation. Dr. King’s in his church in Atlanta, Georgia. – [Rev. Ralph] Abernathy’s church in Atlanta, Georgia. When King heard, or got a note at the pulpit, that the marchers had been beaten, he left the church and went to Selma.
"John was a sure horse, a workhorse. He was a hero, not a champion. A champion is when they ride the peoples’ shoulders. Heroes are when the people ride their shoulders."Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr.
John Lewis and Hosea Williams and Ms. Amelia Boynton. Don’t leave her out, Ms. Boynton, she was the woman with the Dallas County Voters League. She invited Dr. King to Selma in December of that year. Dr. King was there as a guest of the Dallas County Voters League. Now, there are some pieces here. … John was a sure horse, a workhorse. He was a hero, not a champion. A champion is when they ride the peoples’ shoulders. Heroes are when the people ride their shoulders. Who rode John’s shoulders on the bus? Who rode John’s shoulders during the Voting Rights Act? John was the gift that kept on giving. I remember him a couple of weeks ago, and John at that time agreed to be, along with Andrew Young, the co-chair for voting drives this fall. He was the gift that never stopped giving.
I loved John so much.
Transcript edited and annotated for clarity and context.
This program aired on July 20, 2020.
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