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  • Transcriber: Joseph Geni Reviewer: Camille Martínez

  • (Music)

  • (Voice-over) John Lewis: My friends, let us not forget

  • that we are involved in a serious social revolution.

  • We want our freedom, and we want it now.

  • (Voice-over) JL: When you see something that is not right or fair or just,

  • you have to say something, you have to do something.

  • (Voice-over) JL: It doesn't matter whether you're Black or white,

  • we're one people and one family.

  • (Cheers)

  • (Voice-over) JL: One person with a dream, with a vision,

  • can change things.

  • Bryan Stevenson: When people talk about you,

  • what do you want them to say?

  • [TED Legacy Project]

  • [Congressman John Lewis In conversation with Bryan Stevenson]

  • BS: Well, this is such a great honor for me to be in this room with you,

  • to have this conversation.

  • I can't tell you what it means to me to have this opportunity.

  • You represent something so precious to so many of us,

  • and I just wanted to start by thanking you for that,

  • for your willingness to wrap your arms around people like me

  • and to make me think that it's possible to do difficult things,

  • important things.

  • And I just want to start by asking you to talk a little bit

  • about that experience of growing up in rural Alabama

  • in the Black Belt of America

  • and how that cultivated this spirit that shaped your life and your vision.

  • I mean, you used to have to pick cotton on your family's farm.

  • JL: When I used to fuss as a young child,

  • I would complain, "Why this? Why that?"

  • And my mother would say, "Boy, it's the only thing we can do."

  • She said, "I know it's hard work, but what are we going to do?

  • We have to make a living."

  • But I was hoping

  • and almost praying for that day

  • when people wouldn't have to work so hard in the hot sun.

  • She was hoping also that things would be better,

  • much better for us as a people

  • and for my family.

  • My mother, she was always thinking ahead.

  • If we'd get up early and go and pick as much cotton as we could,

  • we would get more money,

  • because she knew the cotton would be heavier

  • 'cause the dew would be on it.

  • So when it was weighed,

  • money would be increased.

  • BS: Your mother sounds really strategic.

  • JL: My dear mother,

  • one day, she came across a little newspaper in downtown Troy

  • that said something about a school in Nashville, Tennessee,

  • that Black students could attend.

  • BS: She encouraged you to apply for that,

  • even though that meant you'd be leaving the house, you'd be leaving the farm,

  • you would not be contributing that extra labor.

  • JL: Well, I was prepared and willing to go

  • to try to do what my folks called "doing better,"

  • to get an education.

  • But in the beginning, I wanted to attend Troy State.

  • BS: You wanted to desegregate Troy State.

  • JL: I submitted my application, my high school transcript.

  • I never heard a word from the school.

  • So I wrote a letter to Dr. King.

  • I didn't tell my mother, my father,

  • any of my sisters or brothers, any of my teachers.

  • I told him I needed his help.

  • He wrote me back

  • and sent me a round trip Greyhound bus ticket

  • and invited me to come to Montgomery to meet with him.

  • And I can never, ever forget it.

  • BS: You knew about Dr. King even before the boycott.

  • You had heard his sermon

  • the Apostle "[Paul's Letter] to American Christians."

  • It's the speech he gives to all the people in Montgomery

  • four days after Rosa Parks has been arrested.

  • At the end of the speech, he says,

  • one day, they're going to tell a story

  • about a group of people

  • in Montgomery, Alabama.

  • And then he says, of Black people who stood up for their rights,

  • and when they stood up for their rights, the whole world changed.

  • And you had an immediate response to that call to action.

  • JL: That message really appealed to me.

  • BS: Yeah.

  • JL: It was sort of a social gospel message.

  • BS: Yeah.

  • JL: I wanted to do what I could to make things better,

  • 'cause when you see something that is not right or fair or just,

  • you have to say something.

  • You have to do something.

  • It's like a fire burning up in your bones,

  • and you cannot be silenced.

  • BS: That's right.

  • JL: My mother would have said to me, "Boy, don't get in trouble.

  • Don't get in trouble.

  • You can get hurt, you can get killed."

  • Dr. King and Rosa Parks and E.D. Nixon

  • and others that I read about at that time

  • and later met,

  • inspired me to get in what I call "good trouble,"

  • necessary trouble.

  • And I've been getting in trouble ever since --

  • the sit-ins, the Freedom Ride ...

  • BS: You went to Nashville

  • and began the work of learning nonviolence.

  • When did nonviolence become an essential part of your worldview

  • and the theology and the activism that you wanted to create?

  • JL: Growing up, I wanted to be a minister.

  • I felt that what Dr. King was saying in his speeches

  • was in keeping with the teaching of Jesus.

  • So I readily accepted this idea --

  • BS: Yeah. Yeah.

  • JL: ... of nonviolence, the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence.

  • We were taught to respect the dignity and the worth

  • of every human being

  • and never give up on anyone;

  • to try to reach them with kindness,

  • with hope and faith and love.

  • So you may beat me, you may arrest me and throw me in jail,

  • but I'm not going to engage in violence.

  • I'm going to respect you as a human being.

  • BS: And I'm wondering whether that is what gave you the courage

  • to endure some of that brutality.

  • Because a lot of people talk about nonviolence.

  • They talk about the theology of love.

  • But when you're on a bus

  • in Anniston, Alabama,

  • or in Montgomery, Alabama, as you've been,

  • surrounded by that mob and surrounded by that hate,

  • surrounded by people who you know are prepared to do violent things,

  • it's a different dynamic.

  • JL: Yeah. I accepted that.

  • Dr. King taught us to love.

  • It's in keeping with my Christian faith

  • to love everybody

  • and never hate,

  • because the hate was too heavy a burden to bear.

  • BS: But it seems like you were strategic, too.

  • You all thought a lot about when and where to go someplace.

  • It wasn't just, "Oh, here's an opportunity here, let's just do it.

  • JL: We just didn't jump up one day and decide that we would go to Selma.

  • We checked places out.

  • Wherever there was a possibility of leadership,

  • of creating a viral organization,

  • whether you had students,

  • people who were prepared to get out and work and organize.

  • And that's what we did.

  • We did everything that we could

  • to bring attention

  • to a situation that was not good for people

  • and then we could organize people.

  • There were religious leaders

  • teachers and lawyers and others in these communities and neighborhoods.

  • There would come a time through the training

  • and accepting nonviolence,

  • the philosophy as a way of living,

  • as a way of life,

  • that you become prepared.

  • BS: It was a lot of rigorous training

  • to be prepared to be in those very stressful situations

  • and maintain that commitment to nonviolence,

  • and I don't think people appreciate

  • how much work went into preparing people for that.

  • JL: Well, it was something that we became committed to,

  • a chance to go through role playing,

  • social drama,

  • pretending that you were beating someone

  • or knocking someone down,

  • someone's blowing smoke in your face

  • and calling you all types of names,

  • training people how to be disciplined

  • and not giving up.

  • On the Freedom Rides in May of 1961,

  • when I was 21 years old,

  • leaving Washington, DC, for the first time

  • to go on the Freedom Ride --

  • I thought we were going to die.

  • As a matter of fact,

  • I thought I saw death,

  • but I believe God Almighty kept me here for a reason.

  • BS: It's a powerful, powerful testimony,

  • the picture of you, and your head is bloodied,

  • this willingness to get back on a bus to do it again.

  • And they interviewed you after some of the sit-ins,

  • and what was interesting to me about the way you talked about it

  • is you were very clear.

  • You said, we're not just trying to do this for the Black people in Nashville.

  • We're trying to do this for everybody,

  • because they may not realize it yet, but what they're doing is wrong,

  • and I wouldn't be the Christian that I claim to be,

  • I wouldn't be the good person that I claimed to be,

  • if I didn't try to help them

  • get past this wrong thing they're doing.

  • I think people want redemption.

  • Our faith tradition,

  • we understand the power of redemption.

  • We preach about it,

  • and we understand that there has to be confession,

  • there has to be repentance.

  • But collectively, as a society, we haven't really embraced that

  • in this country.

  • We haven't really wanted to acknowledge the legacy of slavery

  • and the history of lynching and segregation.

  • People want to skip over the apology part,

  • and you still see these Confederate flags and these symbols of resistance.

  • It seems to me part of what is so urgent right now

  • is that we get people to have the courage to say,

  • "You know, this was wrong, and we have to reject that."

  • But you have seen that redemption in ways that I think has been

  • so extraordinary.

  • JL: A few short years ago,

  • one of the members of the Klan

  • who beat me and beat my seatmate,

  • in a little town

  • called Rock Hill, South Carolina,

  • left us lying in a pool of blood ...

  • Many years later,

  • one member of the Klan

  • and his son

  • came to my office in Washington,

  • and he said, "I've been a member of the Klan.

  • I'm one of the people that beat you and left you bloody.

  • I want to apologize."

  • His son started crying, then he started crying.

  • He came up with his son to hug me.

  • I hugged them back,

  • and I saw this gentleman three other times.

  • It's the power of the way of love, of forgiveness,

  • to admit it and say, "I'm changed," and move on.

  • BS: It does seem to me that if we can show people

  • that on the other side of repentance,

  • on the other side of confession, on the other side of acknowledgment,

  • there's something beautiful,

  • like what you experienced with that Klan member,

  • then maybe they'll find their courage

  • to stand up and talk about the wrongfulness of these things.

  • And I've been curious

  • how you would talk about what you learned

  • from your time with Rosa Parks and Dr. King,

  • what they taught you, what they left you with

  • that has allowed you to do the work you've done.

  • JL: There's something about these individuals,

  • they touch me, they reach me.

  • If it hadn't been for E.D. Nixon

  • or Rosa Parks,

  • Martin Luther King, Jr,

  • Reverend Ralph Abernathy

  • and so many others,

  • I don't know what would have happened to me.

  • I could have been lost.

  • But for Martin Luther King, Jr, to ...

  • sent me a round trip Greyhound bus ticket

  • and invited me to come to Montgomery to meet with him,

  • my first Baptist church --

  • it's impossible,

  • impossible