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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 >>

Thoughts on Martin Luther King Jr. as a leader of the civil rights movement

Lewis speaks about the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., both to the movement and on a personal level. Lewis explains how he would listen to King's radio sermons during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. At the time, Lewis was only fifteen and argues that King's ideas were particularly formative for him. Later, while a seminary student in Nashville, Lewis met King and subsequently worked closely with him in various civil rights activities. In addition, Lewis speaks more broadly about King's role as a leader of the movement, stressing the importance of King's religious affiliations to his success in appealing to African Americans and drawing support for the movement nationally.

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 do you assess the role of Martin Luther King-both his effect on you and on the South as a whole, not blacks particularly?
JOHN LEWIS:
Martin Luther King had a tremendous impact on my life, without question. Growing up in rural Alabama in Pike County-it was fifty miles from Montgomery-during the bus boycott, you had to listen to the man.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
How old were you at the time of the bus boycott?
JOHN LEWIS:
Fifteen years old, so I heard him. I heard him some Sunday mornings. It was a local radio station in Montgomery; that station was WRMA, a black sort of soul station. 11 o'clock on Sunday mornings they would have different ministers to preach. The church we attended in rural Pike County, you didn't go to until around one-thirty or two but you could hear certain ministers from his church-the Dexter Avenue Church. One sermon that I recall him preaching was Paul's letter to American Christians. He made the whole question of religion very valuable. In most of his sermons he injected the whole element of the struggle and the condition of black people. In the sermon he compared the children of Israel with the struggle of blacks. And all of that had some impact. I met Dr. King for the first time in 1958. I tried to enter Troy State College in '58, after spending one year in Nashville at the American Baptist Seminary, and I had a meetin with Dr. King and Fred Gray and it was an attorney in the Alabama State House and he encouraged me. I got the necessary application and I tried to go there but the school officials ignored the application all together and my parents were literally afraid to file any type of action. I was too young to file a suit against the State Board of Education. Later I saw him on many occasions in Nashville while I was in school between 1958 and '61. In a sense, he was my leader. He was a person that I thought was fighting and standing up and just doing those necessary things in the '50's and early '60's. The whole idea of non-violence, to understand the philosophy of and the discipline of non-violence, to use it more than just as a tactic or as a technique but as a philosophy, as a way of life-that was in keeping with what I had been taught, in keeping with the Christian faith. So it was not something that was strange and foreign to me, so I readily accepted that. I think the average black per son in the South . . . it was not hard for black people in the South to identify with Martin Luther King. The guy was well-trained, well educated, all of that. And in spite of his education black people in the South, the masses of black people whether it was in the large urban centers or small towns or rural communities, saw Martin Luther King as one of them. He was a black Baptist preacher and they identified with him. The fact that he was a minister was a real asset. I doubt, if Martin Luther King had been a lawyer, a doctor, whether he would have had the same impact but the fact that he could go into a Baptist church in Montgomery and put the struggle of what he would call freedom and liberation in religious terms, when he could say things like I'm not concerned about the streets that are paved with gold and Pearly Gates, I'm concerned about the streets of Montgomery and the gates of City Hall, or something like that-the people could identify with that. He had a way of sort of capturing the imagination of the masses of black people. You know when you travel in the South today, people are affected. They are influenced by what Martin Luther King said and did-not just the old, old blacks but the young blacks that remember Martin Luther King. I make it a habit when I go back to Selma, at least I used to, and see some of the young people, the people that were very young-five, six, seven in 1965-to try to find out whether they remember Dr. King. And some of them do and some of them say they read about him. I just thing that his leadership during the period from 1955 to 1968 had a tremendous influence on this part of the country, even when the one South as a whole will understand and will come to really appreciate Martin Luther King.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Joh, it is more important that the South than the rest of the country, this is, because of the role of the organized black church
JOHN LEWIS:
Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
You do agree that the black church remains the major source of institutional strength in the black community?
JOHN LEWIS:
I would say so.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:
Even in urban . . . . ?
JOHN LEWIS:
Even in a city like Atlanta. The church is a highly visible institution and it's a great source of power. The ministers of those churches may not be able to produce or deliver the vote, and they cannot. It's the leading ministers in the city, whether it's Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. or people like Rev. William Holmes Borders, pastor of one of the large Baptist churches here. They cannot deliver the black vote; there's no question about that. But the church as a body, the church as an institution, as an organized effort is a source of great power, great strength.