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Rep. John Lewis' Fight For Civil Rights Began With A Letter To Martin Luther King Jr.

Georgia Rep. John Lewis near the statue of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. At StoryCorps in 2018, Lewis talked about meeting King in Montgomery, Ala., at 18.
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CQ-Roll Call via Getty Image
Georgia Rep. John Lewis near the statue of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. At StoryCorps in 2018, Lewis talked about meeting King in Montgomery, Ala., at 18.

Rep. John Lewis is the last living speaker from the March on Washington, the 1963 landmark civil rights protest that culminated with Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

But before Lewis dedicated his life to fighting for racial equality, he grew up in Troy, Ala., with dreams of becoming a different kind of orator.

"When I was very young, I wanted to preach the gospel," Lewis said on a visit to StoryCorps in February 2018.

He wanted to be a minister. His nearest congregation was the family livestock.

"With the help of my brothers and sisters and cousins, we would gather all of our chickens in the chicken yard, and I would start preaching to the chickens. They never quite said 'Amen.' "

But in school, he had a mentor who would eventually open up his career in civil rights. "I had one teacher who'd tell me over and over again, she would say, 'Read, my child. Read.' "

He followed her wisdom. "I tried to read everything," he said.

His parents couldn't afford a subscription to the local newspaper, Lewis said, "But my grandfather had one and when he was finished reading his newspaper each day, he would pass it on to us to read."

Somewhere in those papers, magazines and schoolbooks, 15-year-old Lewis came across the name Rosa Parks, the activist famous for sparking the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala.

"The action of Rosa Parks and the words of Dr. King inspired me," the congressman recalled. "And I kept saying to myself, 'If something can happen like this in Montgomery, why can't we change Troy?' "

So, when he graduated from high school two years later, Lewis wrote a letter to Martin Luther King Jr., who at the time was a young minister from Atlanta sowing the seeds of the civil rights movement.

Not only did King write back to Lewis, he also included in the letter a round-trip bus ticket to Montgomery and an invitation to meet him, which Lewis eventually did — in March 1958.

At 18, Lewis traveled 50 miles from Troy to Montgomery by Greyhound. Fred Gray, the lawyer to King and Rosa Parks, picked him up from the bus station and drove him to the city's First Baptist Church — a historic site tied to the civil rights movement — where he met King in the pastor's office.

"I was so scared. I didn't know what to say or what to do," Lewis recalled. "And Dr. King said, 'Are you the boy from Troy?'

"And I said, 'Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis.' I gave my whole name. But he still called me the 'boy from Troy,' " he said.

Lewis, like others in the civil rights movement, was arrested, jailed and beaten for his efforts.

"I guess in the end we knew and realized that we changed things," Lewis said.

"My philosophy is very simple: When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to stand up, you have to say something, you have to do something."

His mother used to always warn him to stay out of trouble, he said.

"But I told her that I got into a good trouble, necessary trouble," he said. "Even today, I tell people, 'We need to get in good trouble.' "

At 79, Lewis continues to exercise his fighting spirit. Last month, the Georgia representative announced that he would stay in office while he undergoes treatment for stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Kerrie Hillman and Aisha Turner.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life,

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Kerrie Hillman
Aisha Turner
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