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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John Lewis, November 20, 1973. Interview A-0073. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Comparing periods of the civil rights movement and reflecting on its accomplishments

Lewis draws comparisons between the civil rights movement in its early years, 1948 to 1960, and in the 1960s, when he became actively involved. According to Lewis, it was in the later period that more decisive and real change occurred, both in terms of physical and social barriers. The passage concludes with Lewis's remarks on some of the political ramifications of the civil rights. Focusing on his home state of Alabama, Lewis argues that Governor George Wallace's changing public stance on issues of race was symbolic of how white politics were repositioning themselves to take into account the growing power of an African American voting base.

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:
How would you describe the period from 1948 to 1960?
JOHN LEWIS:
In terms of progress, real progress. Of black people in the political arena in terms of civil rights, there is very little progress. You had very few organizations, very few groups. You had on the national level the N.A.A.C.P fighting, for the most part involving a small segment of the black community. You had a few professionals here and there but it was not until the first real effort to involve the masses in the struggle came with the Montgomery boycott bus boycott in 1955. In my estimation, not until 1960, when the whole sit-in started, did you see a total community, every segment of the black community, get involved. I think today what is happening since 1955 and particularly since 1960, black people see their involvements an extension-see their involvement in the political movement as an extension of their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
During the period of the sixties?
JOHN LEWIS:
Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
So that the gains made between 1960 and 1973 are not more than any other period?
JOHN LEWIS:
I would think so.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Could you personally visualize that 1960 when you were involved during your student days?
JOHN LEWIS:
No.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Could you see what the gains might have been?
JOHN LEWIS:
I think we had some idea. A great many of us thought that maybe just being able to go into a lunch counter and get a hamberger and a Coke, that would end certain forms of segregation, racial discrimination-being able to take a seat on a bus or in a waiting room. There were certain barriers physical barriers that we wanted to remove. I think that a great many of us thought that in a short period of time, maybe within a matter of a few months, certain things would happen in terms of removing some of the barriers, some of the legal barriers. But I don't think for the most part that in 1960 we see some of the changes that we see now.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
There were more political barriers than social barriers?
JOHN LEWIS:
There were physical barriers, removing some of the social barriers. And I guess in 1960 we had no idea that in many parts of the South people would be registering and voting and being elected to office. It was not really a part . . . .
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Could you have foreseen that Governor Wallace would crown, just this part Sunday, the first black queen of the University and address a conference of black mayors?
JOHN LEWIS:
No, I don't think so.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
What do you think now?
JOHN LEWIS:
I think that Wallace recognized that black people are registering and that they are voting. In a state like Alabama, when in the early sixties there was only about sixty-five to seventy thousand registered black voters and today there are over twenty thousand registered black voters in the state. In many counties in Alabama you didn't have any black voters in the sixties and now they have black elected officials.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Do you think Wallace's action is symbolically important?
JOHN LEWIS:
I think it is in a sense. I think the action of Governor Wallace is saying that the politics have raised. The politics that we knew during the fifties and sixties is gone. If it's not gone completely, it's on its death bed. I think that's what it symbolizes.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Do you think that Wallace has changed because he recognized the political power involved in registration of black, or more fundamental changes? Is it a change in his attitudes toward blacks?
JOHN LEWIS:
I'm not so sure that I am prepared to say that the governor has changed his attitude. Wallace is apparently a very smart and clever politican. At one time, when he first ran, he was much more progressive and she sort of inverted to a, I guess you might call, conservative position code after he babecame a sort of fighting . Apparently he is going through some changes and I'm really not prepared to say that he has changed his attitudes. No question about it there are changes. Changes are occuring in the South on the part of white elected officials, white politicians. But I can recall in 1961 some of the places we visited on the Freedom Ride in Mississippi, in 1962 and '64 some of the white officials that we came in contact with like the sheriff in County down in McColm, Mississippi. Some of the people that harrassed some of the S.N.C.C. people are some of the same people today that are out campaigning for the black vote. They come to the voter registration rallies, the mass meetings. When Julian and I went on tour in Mississippi in '71, the same people came to welcome us to the city and that was only in Mississippi. In June of '71, the mayor of and this is the same place in Humphrey's County when in the late fifties two N.A.A.C.P. people were shot there, came to welcome us to the city. These guys, I think, can count; they know that black people are registering and they are voting and they want to be re-elected.