By Gregg Bragg, The Island Eye News Senior Staff Writer
John Lewis, the last of the “Big Six” of the Civil Rights movement and a 33-year veteran of Congress, died July 17. Along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer and Roy Wilkins, he led and defined the movement. Lewis was president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1963 to 1966 and consequently delivered the anchor speech during The March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.
His participation as a Freedom Rider inspired an entire generation of activists, including Seabrook resident John Reynolds.
Reynolds, like Lewis, was born and grew up in Troy, Alabama. The Declaration of Independence insists all men are created equal, but, in rural Alabama, that meant equally frustrated by an array of segregationist laws. Reynolds said it took 15 years after high school for either of them to get a simple library card. Reynolds was still in Troy when the Civil Rights Act passed, and the first thing he did was order lunch at the local drugstore, as reported in the June 26, 2015, issue of The Island Connection.
“I heard on the radio the Civil Rights Act had been signed. So I went, by myself, to Byrd Drug Store and ordered lunch. … My choices were to walk all the way across town or across the street and why would I do that?” The stunned lunch counter staff served him. The experience would prove the exception as he and Lewis continued working together to register voters and end segregation.
“He was maybe six years ahead of me, I rode the bus to school with his siblings. One thing I remember was that he came back to our school to visit when I was a sophomore. That was my first encounter with him and is what got me started in the Civil Rights Movement,” said Reynolds.
“I knew that he had been a Freedom Rider early on, and you need to understand that both of us tried to connect to each other’s families, to keep people from knowing we were from Troy. His concern was that his family would lose their land if they knew who he was. He just didn’t talk about being from Troy or Alabama. In my case, I was worried about my family being put off of their land. … after the march to Montgomery, people started finding out who he was. Nothing major happened to his family,” Reynolds recalled.
“Nothing happened physically to my family, either,” he continued. “My father, he worried I was going to put him in a position to lose his house. I never really calmed my father down so much as … he started looking at me differently when I started to get some exposure, like he was resigned. His response was that he went out and got insurance, so he could bring me home when I got killed. It was real and it affected him.”
“When I first got in the movement, he (Lewis) talked to me about how to see situations and that sort of encouraged me to do likewise both in terms of how to protect my life, but he also made it clear he was willing to lose his life. So that was the nature of those beginning conversations. Later it was more a matter of keeping tabs on the other’s family and exchanging status reports whenever we got back together,” Reynolds added.
The Island Connection has spoken to Reynolds several times and always struggled with his “man of few words” posture.
Asked if the reason for being so circumspect was the necessity of keeping a low profile all those years, Reynolds said, “part of it’s a natural shyness, and I don’t tend to boast so I don’t talk a lot even in conversation. I respond and say what needs saying, and the same can be said of Lewis.”
“John Lewis was a humble person. I think in some ways he never went that far away from the farm. He was [from the country], so he didn’t need to boast or show off. He respected people, his folks and older people. I think that’s one of the reasons he really got along with people. He respected them, and I think that comes from his parents and growing up in the country where you were taught to be kind. At his core, he never lost that. It’s an important lesson to remember who you are. And the church was important to him and his family,” said Reynolds.
He went on to say that Lewis couldn’t get into Troy State University, so he reached out to Dr. King, and ended up speaking at the March on Washington.
“Growing up in the country, you cannot talk that much cause there’s distance between folks, and that affects who you are, even though they witnessed some of the same things you had to put up with. He wanted to be a voice then and that turned the corner for him. Something needed to be said and you had no choice but to be bold, and he didn’t run from it,” said Reynolds.
Asked if the Black Lives Matter movement suggests we’re starting all over and that we haven’t made any progress, Reynolds didn’t hesitate.
“No, I think it means we have, but there’s still work to be done. I think the BLM movement means they are learning the lessons from us old folks, that you can make a difference. One of the things for me was seeing the number of young white people out in the streets, and they brought their parents with them like we did in Birmingham, so we have made progress.”
There were too many Lewis quotes for Reynolds to recall during our phone call of July 22, so he sent the Island Connection a SCOPE50 newsletter, along with permission to copy some quotes the newsletter recalled.
“I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete.” – At the 1963 March on Washington.
“Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.” – From his 2017 memoir, “Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America.”
“My dear friends: Your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union.” – A 2012 speech in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“We have been too quiet for too long. There comes a time when you have to say something. You have to make a little noise. You have to move your feet. This is the time.” – At a 2016 House sit-in following the Pulse shooting in Orlando.
“When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’ For some, this vote may be hard. But we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.” – December 2019 remarks in the House on the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” – A tweet from June 2018.
During the July 19 installment of “Face the Nation,” veteran journalist Bob Schieffer said Lewis “made America a better place, and I never knew a better man.” John Dickerson followed by calling Lewis “a testimony to the power of hope that speaks to all of us.” He also leveraged a quote from John Dos Passos – “… in times of change and danger, when there is a quicksand of fear beneath the feet of men’s reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present.”
Reynolds concluded the interview by observing that the hometown he and Lewis shared, where it was once necessary to keep a low profile, has erected a monument in Lewis’ honor – the arc of the moral universe at work.