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John Lewis: When we were ‘Colored’

Michael McGee | 3/27/2014, 9:21 p.m. | Updated on 3/28/2014, 1:22 p.m.
Civil rights activist and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. Charles Dharapak

The Dallas Examiner

“Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,” a choir soloist sang Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit during the 11 a.m. service at St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church.

The lyrics sailed through the air of the otherwise silent building as a young male narrator recounted an infamous killing in Mississippi.

“Mamie Till waved goodbye to her 14-year-old son, Emmett, on Aug. 21, 1955 …” the speaker recounted. “Hate slithered like snakes. Klansmen flew American flags. Burned crosses. Black men swung from trees.”

It was into that atmosphere that Congressman John Lewis, then still a teen from Troy, Ala., stepped forward to lend his voice, and his body, to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement.

With this year being the 50th anniversary of both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the murders of voter rights volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the congressman was invited to Dallas to speak to the congregation. He also agreed to make an appearance at Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson’s annual prayer breakfast.

During his talk, Lewis urged the Metroplex to stay mindful of the struggles of the past while keeping love in their hearts. He shared with them the life he experienced in his segregated hometown.

“We’d go downtown on a Saturday afternoon to the theater. All of us little Black children had to go upstairs to the balcony. And all of the little White children went downstairs to the first floor,” he remembered. “To go in one corner of the store you saw a shiny water fountain, saying ‘White.’ Another corner, or maybe in the same corner, there’s a little spigot saying ‘Colored.’”

Lewis would ask his parents why things were the way they were.

“They would say ‘That’s the way it is.’ Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble,” Lewis said. “But one day in 1955, I heard about Emmitt Till … heard about what happened to this young man. I said, ‘It could happen to one of my cousins coming in from Buffalo to visit us.’ It made me very sad.

“Fifteen years old, but I knew something was wrong,” Lewis declared.

He said that he would later hear about the works of early civil rights leaders on his family’s radio.

“The actions of Rosa Parks, the words and leadership of Dr. King, inspired me to find a way to get in the way. A way to get in trouble,” the congressman stated. “And I got in trouble – good trouble, necessary trouble.”

Applause rang throughout the sanctuary.

Lewis told the crowd how he got involved with the giants of the Civil Rights Movement when he graduated from high school in 1957. It began with a letter he sent to King.

“I told him I wanted to attend a little college only 10 miles from our home,” Lewis cited. “Dr. King wrote me back and sent me a round-trip Greyhound bus ticket and invited me to come to Montgomery to meet with him.”