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Oral History Interview with John Lewis, November 20, 1973. Interview A-0073. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007).
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  • Abstract
    As the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963 to 1966, future Georgia Congressman John Lewis was a prominent leader of the civil rights movement. Lewis begins the story of his involvement in the movement in 1957, when he left his family of tenant farmers in rural Pike County, Alabama, to attend the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee. While a seminary student in Nashville, Lewis began to participate in workshops on nonviolence and became an active and leading participant in the sit-in movement of 1960 in Nashville. For Lewis, the sit-in movement was substantial both for changing his personal views on the civil rights movement and for its ability to generate solidarity within the movement. Shortly after his introduction to civil rights activism, Lewis graduated and was ordained. Seeing the civil rights movement as "an extension of the Church," Lewis devoted his energy to the movement full-time thereafter. In 1961, Lewis participated in the Freedom Rides through Mississippi and Alabama, and he offers an extensive overview of their purpose, the violent opposition the Riders faced, and the support they received from civil rights leaders and the White House. After the Freedom Rides, Lewis returned to Nashville, where he headed the Nashville student movement as a graduate student at Fisk University until 1963. That year, Lewis became the chairman of SNCC, a position he held for three years. In vivid detail, Lewis describes the major activities of SNCC during those years, focusing particularly on the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, as well as on the voter registration drives in Selma and the subsequent march to Montgomery in 1965. Throughout the interview, Lewis situates the role of SNCC more broadly within the civil rights movement as a whole, speaking at length about the transition from religious to political leadership within the movement, the growing importance of voter registration and political participation, and the need for solidarity within the African American community, particularly at the local level. Additionally, Lewis offers his thoughts on the role of Martin Luther King Jr. as a leader of the movement, focusing on King's influence both on him personally and on the movement nationally. Lewis concludes the interview with an overview of the tensions that began to develop within SNCC during his chairmanship, leading to his decision to leave the organization following Stokely Carmichael's rise to power and the shift towards the politics of black power in 1966.
  • Initial activities in the civil rights movement
  • Comparing periods of the civil rights movement and reflecting on its accomplishments
  • Freedom Rides of 1961
  • Mississippi Freedom Summer and the Selma March as SNCC's major efforts
  • Thoughts on the role of religion and politics within the civil rights movement
  • Encouraging voter education, participation, and local leadership
  • Thoughts on Martin Luther King Jr. as a leader of the civil rights movement
  • Tensions within SNCC and transition of leadership from Lewis to Carmichael
  • Learn More
  • Finding aid to the Southern Oral History Program Collection
  • Database of all Southern Oral History Program Collection interviews
  • Resources for Educators
  • Changes in Southern Politics Learning Object
  • Subjects
  • King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968
  • Southern States--Politics and government
  • Democratic Party (Ga.)
  • Georgia--Politics and government
  • African American politicians--Georgia
  • Civil rights--Georgia
  • African Americans--Georgia
  • Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963
  • Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (U.S.)
  • The Southern Oral History Program transcripts presented here on Documenting the American South undergo an editorial process to remove transcription errors. Texts may differ from the original transcripts held by the Southern Historical Collection.

    Funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services supported the electronic publication of this title.