The Man Who Still Believes He came of age when the civil rights movement was young. Though many have lost their faith in what America could be, U.S. Rep. John R. Lewis is still searching and struggling for that promised land.

June 29, 1998|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The congressman is late. He should have been here a half-hour ago. Where is he?

His day started with an 8 a.m. fund-raising breakfast at One Penn Center in Philadelphia. Then there was an 8:30 a.m. leadership breakfast. After that, a quick stroll to 30th Street Station to catch a train back to D.C., stopping along the way to talk to a white, middle-aged newspaper vendor who had called out to him: "I remember everything you've done over the years. I just want to shake your hand."

He caught the 10:14 a.m. Amtrak to Washington, getting back in time for the Georgia Farm Bureau Federation's luncheon at noon, which overlapped with a Congressional Black Caucus luncheon in the Rayburn Building and was followed by a meeting with the Georgia Society of Anesthesiologists.

Now, it's mid-afternoon, and the congressman is somewhere on Capitol Hill. There's a newspaper reporter and photographer sitting in his outer office. His aides have offered them salted Georgia peanuts, water, the varied refreshments of Coca-Cola Bottling.

A large black-and-white photograph of the congressman striding through Selma, Ala., hangs on one wall.

He was a young man then, marching through history with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy. He choked on tear gas on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, walked into murderous, hate-filled mobs, took more than his share of blows to the head and body. And he lived to tell the tale.

Suddenly, the hall door swings open. This time it is not a reassuring aide saying the congressman is on his way. This time an electricity fills the office. U.S. Rep. John R. Lewis, D-Ga., a compact, fireplug of a man, hustles inside, aides and press officer surrounding him. He apologizes repeatedly, perhaps remembering a lesson from his childhood growing up in Pike County, Ala.: It's not nice to keep people waiting.

He ushers the visitors into his office, apologizes again. There's barely time to catch his breath. No time to sign the dozen or so copies of his newly published memoir, "Walking With the Wind" (Simon and Schuster, $26), which sit stacked on a table. Colleagues and friends have left them for him to autograph. Subtitled "A Memoir of the Movement," the book tells the story of Lewis' life as Freedom Rider, one-time president of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), stalwart soldier and leader in the war to change America.

Twelve years ago, he left his seat on the Atlanta City Council and beat out his old friend, Julian Bond, to represent Georgia's fifth congressional district seat. It was a mighty step for Lewis, who grew up a poor boy in rural Alabama. His people called him "preacher" because he held sermons in the chicken yard.

"Sometimes I think some of those chickens that I used to preach to listen to me better than many of my colleagues in Congress," he says, joking.

Since arriving in Washington, Lewis, 58, has not wavered from his convictions and the teachings learned when he was a college student in Nashville, hungry for a new America.

QUESTION: "What does it mean for you to be a liberal, to be classified as a liberal, today?"

ANSWER: "It means to be on the side of people that need your help and need the help of a caring, sharing and compassionate government. ... I'm not going to run away from my commitment to a truly integrated society, an interracial democracy. I'm not going to run away from my commitment to the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. I think we must continue to move toward an integrated society. To do otherwise, it's not healthy for the American community, and it's not leading toward the building of a sense of community."

Lewis still believes in what he calls the "American family." His sincerity almost seems out of step with the time. Is he hopelessly retro to speak of the American people and the beloved community, and to hold dear the old creeds? He leans in close and offers an explanation:

"You know that song we used to sing, 'Keep your eyes on the Prize'? If you believe in the idea of an integrated society. If you believe in the idea of the beloved community, that should give you some hope and some optimism. And you have to continue to struggle to build that type of society, that type of community."

Despite the steady drumbeat of disaffection, despite the polls that record vastly different views of society, despite the sense in some quarters that integration did as much harm as it did good, despite all this, he still believes.

Yet, even his heart is tried by the nightmare crimes that erupt across the land.

QUESTION: "What is your reaction to the recent dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, which comes like some horror from the 1920s?"

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