“John Lewis, national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, visited Yale last weekend to speak at the Socialist Symposium. Saturday afternoon he addressed an audience in Sterling-Strathcona on ‘The Negro Struggle in America,’ later parrying questions which sought to identify SNCC with Socialism. That evening, he consented to an interview on his own place in the civil rights movement and the status of the Negro struggle in the South today.
He was finishing his supper with a couple of close friends in the third floor apartment of a frame house on Sherman Avenue. Sitting down on the blue sofa in the living room, with a little prodding John Lewis told his story, a story which in the past few months has become the story of SNCC and the story of ‘the Movement’ all across the deep black South.
‘I was born in Troy — it’s a small town in central Alabama — in 1940,’ he said in a pleasantly slurred voice. Lewis was the third of ten children. His father was a tenant farmer then, but by the time Lewis was four he had saved enough to move his family to a 100-acre farm. ‘The ground was rocky,’ he went on, ‘but we grew peanuts, corn, hogs— made ends meet.’
Lewis went to Negro elementary school in a one-room Methodist church in Troy. The county provided one teacher for the six grades that met in the room.
A Ride to School
Lewis got his grade school diploma in the summer of 1951. The next fall the county instituted bus transportation for Negro children to the junior high school 15 miles away in Banks, so he got to ride to school.
Two years later Lewis began an eventful career at Pike County Training School. Negro high schools in Alabama are called training schools. There were about 700 students at Pike, from all over the county. ‘There was a regular curriculum, sort of,’ Lewis said. ‘We had biology, chemistry, things like that — but without the labs or any facilities. About 60 or 70 kids in a classroom.’ Some of the teachers at Pike were good, but most were poorly educated. Alabama’s Negro high school teachers are trained for the most part at the non-accredited Alabama State College in Montgomery, then go right back to the county training schools out of which they came. ‘We had a basketball team; they played training schools from other counties — no band though,’ he remembered.
One thing Pike County Training School did have, and that was a reading room. Negro kids couldn’t use the public library in town, but at the school library John began reading the Montgomery Advertiser. ‘I just found myself with a curiosity about life,’ he said, ‘and I wanted to keep abreast of what was going on.’
Montgomery Bus Boycott
In 1955, when John Lewis was a sophomore, Martin Luther King came to Montgomery. The bus boycott King organized was one of the first concerted Negro attempts to protest discrimination in public facilities. It made headlines throughout the nation, and brought Martin Luther King into the public eye, and had a profound effect on a 15-year-old Negro boy back in the little town of Troy.
‘I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what,’ Lewis said of this period. ‘I began to feel a strong resentment against ‘the system.”
The Montgomery crisis subsided after the Negroes had won their right to sit with whites and John Lewis continued at Pike.
By the time he graduated in 1957, he felt that the Negro church might well be the best place to follow his convictions. ‘I think I was very religious as a kid,’ Lewis said, ‘— Sunday school, church programs, other activities. I wanted to become a minister even then. When I got older I thought maybe the emotionalism and the religious enthusiasm of the Negro church could serve as a vehicle for freedom.’
The Nashville Sit-Ins
With that in mind, Lewis accepted a tuition scholarship to Nashville’s American Baptist Seminary. He waited tables and washed dishes for four years to earn his board and room. It was here in Nashville that the young student first came in contact with whites on a social level.
In 1958 he started attending ‘nonviolence workshops’ run by a young Negro Methodist minister who had spent time in India studying the nonviolent protest tactics of Gandhi. In the fall of 1959 the first of the Nashville ‘sit-in’ demonstrations were held.
Student groups in Greensboro, N.C., began a rash of sit-ins in February, 1960. Meanwhile, the protests in Nashville were now being centrally organized by a students’ Central Committee, composed of five representatives from each of Nashville’s major universities — Fisk, Vanderbilt, American Baptist Seminary, and others. John Lewis was among the leaders of this committee.
The Beginnings of SNCC
The way Lewis told it, ‘The committee sort of turned into SNCC.’ In April, 1960, letters were sent to similar student committees throughout the South, asking them to respond by sending delegates to a meeting at Raleigh, N.C., in April. Out of that conference came the loose organization which has since stiffened into perhaps the most militant and dedicated corps of rights workers in American history — The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Slowly SNCC grew, drawing both financial and personal support from campuses across the US. In the June of 1962 John Lewis took over the national chairmanship of SNCC; since then he has been making periodic three-week speaking tours throughout the country, but spending as much time as possible in the deep South. SNCC now has 150 full-time staff workers, of whom 35 to 40 are whites.
‘We all believe in nonviolence,’ Lewis maintained. ‘Some of us accept it as a philosophy, some as a technique. But there is a growing sense of aggressiveness within SNCC, which I feel is good and in keeping with our philosophy. In 1960, we were more dignified. In 1964, we are not cooperating. We’re learning the place of civil disobedience.’
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis says, will continue to work on all major fronts in the civil rights struggle, but concentration will be on voter registration in the deep South. Nonviolence and non-cooperation will be the watchwords of a student corps of civil rights workers dedicated to ending the struggle in the decade of the ’60s.”
-Excerpt and images courtesy of Yale University, Yale Daily News Historical Archive, Yale Daily News, “JOHN LEWIS: NEGRO REVOLUTIONARY,” by Howard M. Moffett, March 19, 1964
LEWIS, by Henry Christensen III, March 16, 1964
“John Lewis was five and a half hours late, but the national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee took a bus from Boston and addressed the Socialist symposium Saturday afternoon.
He didn’t talk about socialism. He talked of the 10 years since the Supreme Court decision on school integration. ‘The Negro people are tired,’ he said. ‘They’re restless and desperate. They want to vote in 1964.’
His speech was short. He spoke of SNCC’s plans; but, more generally, on the Negro in America today and the reasons for Negro protest.
Introducing Mr. Lewis with a semantic conflict, Louis H. Follak, professor of law, said: ‘Today, as a gathering like this illustrates, the ferment in the classroom and permeating the world outside the classroom is in dramatic contrast to the quiet of ten years ago.’
But Mr. Lewis did not see enough ferment. He noted improvements, but added, ‘We’ve been waiting for hundreds and hundreds of years for America to redeem herself.’
‘There must be some basic changes made in our economic and political structure,’ he noted.
He spoke of his organization’s plans to saturate Mississippi with student volunteers this summer. He said that both Negroes and whites are economically oppressed ln the South, that a decadent economic and political hierarchy is holding them down.
‘We must force a showdown between the state and federal governments,’ he said. ‘We hope to challenge Mississippi. Negroes will march on courthouses to register.’ Mr. Lewis stated that if they couldn’t, they would form their own state organization, elect representatives, and send a delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J.
‘Law and Order’
‘We have a tradition of law and order in the US,’ Mr. Lewis said. ‘It’s a law and order which tells the Negro to sit back and be patient, which says, ‘We’ll work something out for you.’ It’s an order among guilty men.’
In order to change this order, he explained, action was necessary. But many people have accused the Negro of causing too much trouble, some even accusing the movement of being Communist inspired.
‘But we can’t slowdown,’ he said. ‘How long do the white people think it will take the Negro to realize that he is oppressed, that the Negro in Mississippi is living under a police state?’
His speech was not addressed to socialists; they just happened to make up the audience. He answered them, ‘I think all Americans, all people, should work in the cause of freedom.’
-Excerpt courtesy of Yale University, Yale Daily News Historical Archive, Yale Daily News, “LEWIS,” by Henry Christensen III, March 16, 1964