John Lewis (JL): When I was very young, I wanted to preach the gospel. I wanted to be a minister. So with the help of my brothers and sisters and cousins, we would gather all of our chickens in the chicken yard and I would start preachin to the chickens. They never quite said “Amen.”
Valerie Jackson (VJ): [Laughs]
JL: When I first went off to school I had a tie and had a little jacket, and my classmates, and my teachers would call me ‘boy preacher.’ And I had one teacher who’d tell me over and over again, she would say, “read my child, read.” And I tried to read everything. We were too poor to have a subscription to the local newspaper. But my grandfather had one and when he was finished reading his newspaper each day he would pass it on to us to read.
And one day I heard about Rosa Parks. And the action of Rosa Parks and the words of Dr. King inspired me. And I kept saying to myself, “If something can happen like this in Montgomery, why can’t we change Troy?” When I finished high school I wrote a letter to Dr. King…
VJ: But you had never met him by this point. You’re just writing him a blind letter…
JL: I wrote him a blind letter.
JL: He wrote me a letter.
JL: He sent me a round trip Greyhound bus ticket — invited me to come to Mongomerey to meet with him. So in March of 1958, by this time I’m 18 years old, I boarded a Greyhound bus. I travelled the 50 miles from Troy to Montgomerey and a young lawyer by the name of Fred Gray, who had been the lawyer for Rosa Parks and Dr. King, met me at the Greyhound bus station and drove me to the First Baptist Church and ushered me into the office of the church. I was so scared. I didn’t know what to say or what to do. And Dr. King said, “Are you the boy from Troy?” And I said, “Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis.” I gave my whole name. But he still called me the ‘boy from Troy.’
We were arrested. We were jailed. We were beaten. But I guess in the end we knew and realized that we changed things. My philosophy is very simple. When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just — you have to stand up, you have to say somethin’, you have to do somethin’.
My mother told me over and over again when I went off to school not to get into trouble but I told her that I got into a good trouble, necessary trouble. Even today I tell people, ’we need to get in good trouble.’