John Lewis Documentary Creator, Charlotte Reporter Reflects On The Congressman's Life
The public is paying respects to long-time Georgia congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, as his body lies in state at the U. S. Capitol Rotunda for a second day. The 80-year-old Lewis died last week from pancreatic cancer. His funeral is Thursday in Atlanta.
Known as the moral conscience of Congress during his 33 years in office, Lewis’ work as a Civil Rights activist not only touched the nation but the North and South Carolina region as well. WBTV reporter Steve Crump details that work in a documentary, "John Lewis—Reflections of a Sit-In Pioneer." Crump says Lewis gives the sit-ins in 1960 in Greensboro a lot of credit for the successful sit-in movement he was a major part of that year in Nashville, Tennessee.
Crump: John Lewis said to me that when he saw what was happening in Greensboro, that that pretty much gave them validation to do what they did in Nashville. That it wasn't just the students at Tennessee State, in American Bible College where he was. And that allowed some of the folks to begin the wheels to be set in motion to bring about change in that community far as integrating a local lunch counters with five and dime stores.
Glenn: And let's remind people what happened in 1960 in Greensboro.
Crump: There were four North Carolina A&T students that went to the Woolworth's. Their actions were basically sitting in until being served. And that happened in July of 1960.
Glenn: And, of course, that Woolworth is now the International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro. John Lewis also did a lot of work a little closer to Charlotte in Rock Hill. Tell us about that and you cover that in your documentary.
Crump: One of the things about John Lewis, is we've heard so much about what happened on March 7, 1965, in Selma, Alabama, as it relates to Bloody Sunday. The reality of that, the first violence that John Lewis ever encountered happened 30 minutes south of Charlotte in the community of Rock Hill in 1961. And that was when Lewis and so many of the other folks that were part of the student movement back then became involved in the Freedom Rides. So they were testing federal laws at Greyhound bus stations from the standpoint of where the courts had ruled the Jim Crow segregation was done.
Glenn: And here's what John Lewis had to say in his own words about that Rockhill encounter.
John Lewis: I remember in 1961, coming to Rock Hill and getting off a Greyhound bus at the Greyhound bus station to test a decision of the United States Supreme Court banning segregation in places of public transportation. My seatmate, a young white gentleman, the two of us tried to enter the so-called white waiting room, and we were tied and beaten and left lying in a pool of blood. That was my introduction to Rock Hill.
Crump: They were not jailed, but the police came and asked him if he wanted to swear out a warrant against the Klansmen that had demonstrated that level of violence and vitriol against him. And he said no. About 47 years later, one of the Klansmen involved in an episode, Elwin Wilson, who was still living in Rock Hill at the time, apologized to him. And that happened back in early 2009.
Glenn: I remember that. Do you remember how they reconnected?
Crump: From what I understand, Wilson reached out to Lewis. Lewis responded. And from there, everything pretty much took on a life of its own. Even to the point of where, they made several different public appearances or they talked about hatred, forgiveness and apologies.
Glenn: Tell us about other work that he did in this area or statewide in North or South Carolina.
Crump: John Lewis was no stranger to this area. I had the opportunity of interviewing him a number of times over the years. He had visited Davidson College, Central Piedmont Community College. He was the keynote speaker for the Martin Luther King Prayer Breakfast in Rock Hill several years ago. So in that regard, John Lewis had a relationship, a very solid and very strong relationship with a number of people and organizations and educational institutions here in the Carolinas.
Glenn: And was he also involved with the SNCC chapters here?
Crump: The involvement with John Lewis and SNCC, as far as what we found out, is that when they had the very first SNCC meeting in 1961 in Raleigh, North Carolina, he became acquainted with some of the people from Johnson C. Smith University, North Carolina A & T, Shaw University, and maintained a friendship with them. So there was always this sense of camaraderie as it related to Lewis and the other members of SNCC that were part of North Carolina campuses in this area.
Glenn: And Shaw University was also where his good friend the Reverend Dr. C.T. Vivian was often a guest lecturer, who died the same day as Congressman John Lewis did.
Crump: The timing of that was just amazing. How do you lose two titans, two giants on the same day? And the fact that they worked together in places like Selma, Alabama, where both took on the likes and the meanness of a sheriff, Jim Clark, who was the sheriff of Selma in Dallas County.
Glenn: And I remember hearing him during the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and talking to protesters. And I saw a clip of that in your documentary where he was giving a message to protesters today.
John Lewis: We didn't have a website, a cellular telephone. We didn't even have a computer. But we stood on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We used our feet and we put our bodies on the line. We just got in the way. And you must get in the way.
Crump: John Lewis always said, "Never give up. Never give in. Keep your eyes on the prize."
Glenn And what do you want people to take away from this documentary?
Crump: This particular project focuses primarily on his efforts of what can happen when you sit at a lunch counter, what can happen when you organize college students together. And the fact that even though things look kind of dark in the very beginning, they were able to bring about substantial change that lasted decades later.
Glenn: Steve Crump, a reporter for WBTV and producer of the documentary "https://youtu.be/EGewBFQTLL8" target="_blank">John Lewis - Reflections of a Sit-In Pioneer."
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