Touro 2018 Gala | Photo by Mona Shield Payne

Congressman John Lewis Visits Las Vegas

The politician and civil rights leader spoke at the sold-out 2018 Touro Gala

“We’ve got to make a real all-out effort to be visible, to make the human rights campaign all-inclusive,” says Congressman John Lewis. “We have to do it. We cannot be separated or be divided.”

If anyone understands the importance of unity in times of struggle, it’s Lewis, who joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement at age 17 and went on to become one of its leaders. It was Lewis who was at the front of the march on Selma, Alabama, and was beaten nearly to death by state troopers, an event that was a turning point in the fight for civil rights.

In 1986, Lewis was elected to represent Georgia’s 5th Congressional District and has focused on issues related to the environment, health care and, of course, civil rights. The Congressman spoke to Vegas Seven about the inspiration of young activists, the midterm elections and the current political climate, of which he says, “As a nation and as a people, when this ends, we will be stronger. We will be much more unified. We will be closer to being of one accord.”

[Editor’s note: The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]

Touro 2018 Gala | Photo by Mona Shield Payne

On fighting for progress when the government wants to turn back the clock

It makes me sad sometimes, to know the distance that we’ve come, the progress that we’ve made—the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the Voting Rights Act in 1965—and to see a group of people come along and try to undo it. You almost have to start all over again, to fix it, to patch it up. It’s a waste of time, in a sense, it’s a waste of resources. You feel like, “I’ve been down that road, and I’ve got to go down that road again.” But, you see, today, what gives me hope is the young people. The young people. The students give me so much hope that it’s all going to work out. Our future is going to be bright.

I say to the LGBT community, to the Dreamers, to all of these students: Keep it up. Continue to push. The people listen. Members of Congress are listening and the local elected officials are listening. These young people and these different organizations created this powerful coalition, along with women, they’re going to get us there. They’re going to redeem the soul of America and move us closer to what Dr. King called “the beloved community.” We will lay down the burden of our differences. We will lay down the burden of separation and division. We will get there.

On how media can help activism—and how “fake news” can hurt it

I think that’s part of the problem, because they can say it’s “fake news,” it didn’t happen. But during the ’60s, the press was a sympathetic referee. If it hadn’t been for the media, I tell you, the story would have been untold. People saw it—they saw it in black and white, they saw it on television, they saw the pictures in the newspapers and the magazines. They saw those unbelievable acts of violence against peaceful, nonviolent protests. So you had religious leaders from all over the country coming to Selma to respond to what happened after we were beaten bloody on that bridge.

On his graphic novel, March, and inspiring young readers

I’ve been at Comic Con three times. And I’m probably going back. We published a comic book that is doing very well: High school students and college students, people are reading it all around America and around the world. It’s been translated into Japanese, Italian, Spanish, French. I remember when I was very young, I read a comic book called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. I tell young people—young children, elementary school, middle school and high school—read! Read! Read the literature of the civil rights movement. Watch the films, watch the videos and you can learn something.

Education is the key. Education helps change things. With education, you can create a mighty movement, you can create a powerful, unstoppable effort to get what you need and what you want. … And we must see that all of our children, all of our young people, receive the best possible education.

On the midterm elections

In November, because of what is happening right now, there’s going to be a massive turnout of voters. You will witness young people, millennials, just coming to the polls. You’ll see many young people and many women running for office. And many of these young people and women will be elected. The Congress is going to look different, state legislatures are going to look more like America—which is going to be good. More African Americans, more Latinos, more Asian Americans, more Native Americans coming into office at the national level.

Look at what happened in Alabama: It was the black women. They turned out higher to vote for this man—whom I campaigned for, who is a friend of mine, Doug Jones—than they did for Obama. Because they felt something was at stake. And that’s what people feel now. That’s why they’re going to turn out.

On youth and activism in the civil rights era and today

When we were beaten and left bloody and unconscious, we didn’t fight back, we didn’t become bitter. We kept our eyes on the prize. That’s what these children and young people are doing today. They are focused. The walkouts in so many places … they’re serious about that.

If you believe in something, you’ve got to stand up for it. You can’t go halfway. You’ve got to speak up and speak out. You have to do what I call “get in the way.” When I was young and I’d ask my mother and father, my grandparents and great-grandparents: “Why this, why that? Why all the signs that say, ‘white man’ and ‘colored man,’ ‘white man’ and ‘colored man’? Why?” And they’d say, “That’s just the way it is. Don’t get in the way, don’t get in trouble.”

But Rosa Parks and Dr. King inspired me to get in trouble. So, you see, a lot of young people today get in what their parents or grandparents would call “trouble.” But it’s good trouble, it’s necessary trouble. You have to stir up things, turn them right-side-up to make it right.