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Diplomacy in Action

New Direction for the Civil Rights Movement

FPC Briefing
U.S. Congressman John Lewis
Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
February 23, 2009

Date: 02/23/2009 Location: Washington, D.C. Description: U.S. Congressman John Lewis, D-GA, at the Washington Foregin Press Center Briefing on the "New Direction for the Civil Rights Movement." State Dept Photo
2:00 P.M. EST


MODERATOR: First, I would like to say welcome to the Foreign Press Center again. And we ask that you turn your cell phones off and put them on vibrate, please. And we’re going to start with the program.

Today, we have U.S. Congressman John Lewis, who was elected to Congress in November of 1986, and he has served as U.S. Representative of Georgia until present time. Congressman Lewis is often called one of the most courageous persons of the Civil Rights Movement ever produced. He has dedicated his life to protecting human rights, secure civil liberty, and building what is – he calls, “the beloved community in America.” His dedication to the high ethical standards and moral principles has won him the admiration of many of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the United States Congress.

I present to you today, Congressman Lewis.

MR. LEWIS: Thank you. Thank you very much for those kind words of introduction. Let me just say that I’m delighted, very happy, and very pleased to be here at the Foreign Press Center.

As you heard, during my early life I was very much involved in the Civil Rights Movement in America. I grew up in rural Alabama, about 50 miles from Montgomery, outside of a little place called Troy. My father was a sharecropper, a tenant farmer. I grew up very poor. But in 1944, when I was four-years-old, and I do remember when I was four, my father had saved $300, and with the $300 he bought 110 acres of land. And on this farm we raised a lot of cotton and corn, peanuts, hogs, cows, and chickens. And I won’t bore you with the chicken story.

But it was my responsibility, as a young child, to care for the chickens. And I fell in love with raising chickens, like no one else could raise chickens. As a little child, I wanted to be a minister, so from time to time, with the help of my brothers and sisters and my first cousins, we would gather all of our chickens together in the chicken yard, like you would gather here in this room, and we would have church. And sometimes I would speak or preach with my brothers and sisters and the chickens making up the congregation or the audience. And when I look back on it, some of these chickens would bow their heads, some of these chickens would shake their heads. They never quite said “amen.” But I’m convinced that some of those chickens that I preached to during the ‘40s and the ‘50s tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues listen to me today in the Congress. Don’t tell any of them I said that. But some of these chickens were just a little more productive, at least they produced eggs.

But growing up there outside of Troy, and we would visit Troy, visit Montgomery or Birmingham, a community – a little town called Tuskegee – I saw those signs that said white men, colored men, white women, colored women, white waiting, colored waiting. And I would ask my mother, my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, why segregation? Why racial discrimination? And they would say that’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.

But in 1955 at the age of 15, I heard the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., on an old radio and the words of Dr. King inspired me. I had heard about Rosa Parks in Montgomery – inspired me to find a way to get in the way. I was so inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That in 1956 at the age of 16, with some of my brothers and sisters and first cousins, we went down to the public library in a little town of Troy, Alabama, trying to check out some books, trying to get library cards. And we were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only and not for coloreds. I never went back to that library until July 5, 1998 – by this time I’m in the Congress – for a book signing of my book “Walking with the Wind.” It was like a big family reunion – blacks and whites showed up, had a wonderful program, we had food. At the end of the program, after I signed a lot of books, they gave me a library card. It says something about the distance we have come and the progress we’ve made in America in laying down the burden of race.

In 1958 at the age of 18, I met Martin Luther King, Jr., for the first time. I had met Mrs. King in 1957, Rosa Parks back in 1957, but 1958 I met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and I got involved in America’s Civil Rights Movement. Came to Washington, D.C., the first time, after being involved in sit-ins, to go to something called a Freedom Ride. Back in 1961, it was almost impossible for blacks and whites to board a bus, to be seated together in Washington, D.C. and travel together into Virginia, through North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi into New Orleans without the possibility of being arrested or jailed or beaten. That’s what happened to us in 1961. 1961 is the same year that Barack Obama was born, the summer of the Freedom Ride, end of segregation and racial discrimination in public transportation all across the South. Those signs came tumbling down. And the only place you’re going to see those signs in America today will be in a museum, in a book, on a video. Back in 1961, ’62, ’63, ’64, ’65 it was almost impossible for people of color to be able to register to vote in many of the southern states of the old Confederacy from Virginia to Texas.

I came back here in 1963 at the age of 23. We had a meeting with President Kennedy in the Oval Office of the White House which chaired something called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, better known as SNCC. By this time, all across the South, hundreds and thousands of people have been arrested and jailed for sitting in, for marching. Police Commissioner Bull Connor in the city of Birmingham had used dogs and fire hoses on people. So we came to meet with President Kennedy in June of 1963, and told him that there was a great deal of discontent, people were restless, and we needed to do something. We told him we were going to march on Washington.

And after meeting with him, we met as a group, the leaders of the movement, and organized a march on Washington. And I was the youngest speaker on August 28, 1963 – 23 years old – when Dr. King stood and said, I have a dream today, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. Dr. King spoke number ten, out of the ten people that spoke. I spoke number six. And out of the ten people that spoke that day, I’m the only one still around.

I remember working on my march on Washington speech. When I was working on that speech, I saw a photograph in The New York Times of a group of black women in Southern Africa, carrying signs, saying, “One man, one vote.” So in my march on Washington speech, I said something like: “One man, one vote is the African cry. It is ours, too. It must be ours.” And that became the rallying cry of the young people in my old organization called SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And all across the south, we started mobilizing people around the right to vote.

So these many years later after the march from Selma to Montgomery and after the march on Washington, we have witnessed what I call in America a nonviolent revolution – a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas. People are registered and they are voting. And as I said a few days ago, I just returned from a trip in India commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr. King and Mrs. King’s trip to walk the steps of Gandhi. And a group of members just returned last night from India. And I said there in India as we traveled, if it hadn’t been for Gandhi, hadn’t been for Martin Luther King, Jr., there would be no Barack Obama.

The teaching of Gandhi, the philosophy of passive resistance and nonviolence, and also taught by Martin Luther King, Jr., and inspired hundreds and thousands and millions of citizens in America helped to free and liberate not just a people, but a nation. And it’s gratifying, really, to go and travel abroad and go to New Delhi and Mumbai and other parts of India, and see people who are still adhering to the philosophy and to the discipline of nonviolence: the message of passive resistance, the message of peace, the message of love, the message of nonviolence.

And many of the people that we came in contact, young people, people in government, really admire what Dr. King did here. And they are very hopeful about the new President and his Administration. So I’ve gone on for a while, so why don’t I just open it up for some questions.

MODERATOR: Okay. Please remember to wait for the microphone and identify your organization and your name, please.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Congressman, and thank you very much for giving us – to ask you questions. My name is Hiroki Sugita. I’m with Kyodo News, Japanese newswire service. Recently, Attorney General Mr. Holder talked about the race issue in this country and he used the word – phrase “nation of cowards.” And would you comment what do you think of this, what he said?

MR. LEWIS: Well, I believe the attorney general was trying to suggest that in America, in spite of all of the changes, in spite of all of the progress that we’ve made as a nation and as a people, we still have some reservation to talk about the issue of race. But we need to discuss it. We need to engage in dialogue. That’s why during a non-election year, some of us in the Congress take members of the House and the Senate, both Democrats and Republicans, back to visit some of these historic sites.

So the first weekend in March, we will be taking a coalition of Democrats, Republicans, African American members, white members, Latinos, Asian American members back to Birmingham, to Montgomery and to Selma. And as a matter of fact, the attorney general will be making the trip. It’s March 6th, 7th, and 8th. And he will be in Selma on the 8th of March to speak at the – from the same pulpit that Dr. King and myself spoke from many, many times during 1965, during the march from Selma to Montgomery.

QUESTION: Thank you, Congressman Lewis. And I thank you so much for your dedication to civil right and promoting human rights around the globe. My name is Nike Ching from Voice of America, Mandarin service. Last Congress, you have introduced resolution to urge the United States take a – it should become an international human rights leader. And also you sponsored – you have sponsored resolutions that – to urge China to play a more constructive role in Darfur crisis. My question for you is: What is your position, the U.S. becomes a United Nations Human Rights Council? Do you support that? And then, also, I would like to know, like, do you support the human rights continue to be the core value of U.S. foreign policy? And after that, if I may, I would like to have a follow-up after that. Thank you.

MR. LEWIS: Well, I think it’s important. I think it is a must that the issue of human rights continues to be a core – a standard and the heart and soul of our foreign policy. We cannot have – preach human rights here at home and not preach human rights abroad. When it comes to the matter of our foreign policy, whether it’s dealing with trade or bilateral concern, the issue of human rights must be involved.

QUESTION: Do you support United States to become a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council?

MR. LEWIS: I do support it. I think it’s very important for the United States to be a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

QUESTION: May I have a follow-up, please? I’m sorry. Secretary Clinton was just over East Asia last week, and then she said something like she will not emphasize so much on human rights with China, because there is more – a lot more important issues like global warming and things like that. I wonder if you have any comment on that?

MR. LEWIS: Well, when we were abroad in India, I did hear about the statement. I have not seen – I heard it on CNN, and I have not seen it written and I did not see it coming from the lips of the Secretary of State. But I do know the Secretary of State, who is a good friend and known her for many, many years, is deeply committed to the question of human rights.

QUESTION: Thank you, Congressman. It’s a privilege to be with you today. My name is Paolo Valentino. I’m the U.S. correspondent for Corriere Della Sera. The election of President Obama marks the end of a journey, in a way, in the evolution of the role of the Afro American community. Now – and yet the candidate Obama and President Obama had during the campaign, for instance, criticized certain attitudes of the black, or the Afro American community, like the lack of commitment of certain Afro American fathers toward the family or toward the kids. Do you hear those criticism, and if you could elaborate on that?

MR. LEWIS: Well, I share the concern raised by then-candidate Barack Obama. I think he was speaking to something that others have spoken to. During the lifetime of Martin Luther King, Jr., and many other leaders, people suggested and stated there are certain things that we can do and must do for ourselves, and we cannot depend on others to do it, nor federal government. And I think Barack Obama, as candidate and as President, was right in what he said.

QUESTION: Hello, sir. Thank you very much for being here. My name is Natalia Mozogovaya. I’m the Washington correspondent of Haartez, the Israeli newspaper. I have two questions.

First of all, I would be happy to hear your position on the possible participation of the United States in the Durban conference. And the second one: We’ve heard here some voices saying that during the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, maybe United States should have put more pressure on Israel to stop it earlier because so many people were killed. Thank you.

MR. LEWIS: Well, I think it’s important for the United States Government and for the American people to be represented in international conferences. We need to be at the table. We do – we need to be inside the tent and not outside. We need to be part of the debate and not be spectators. I think it’s important. I know there’s some concern about what may be done or what may be said during this conference, but I think that is very important.

I would leave it up to the Barack Obama Administration to take a lead, to take the initiative in saying what we should be doing as it relate to what is going on in the Middle East at this time.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Lewis. Genocide topic is also connected to human rights. That’s why I am asking – Mr. Barack Obama, while running as candidate for president, he pledged to affirm Armenian genocide. And many other candidates during the last decades also made such kind of promises, but unfortunately did not keep it while being in White House, and the last president, George W. Bush, was one of them. What do you think about now times – how much realistic is it to expect that Mr. Obama will keep the promise and genocide will be accepted? Thank you very much.

MR. LEWIS: Well, it is – it is my hope and my prayer, and I think it’s the hope and the prayers of the American people and people of good will all over the world that President Barack Obama would keep his commitment, keep his word as it relate to what is going on, on the whole question of Darfur, as someone raised earlier. I think it was former Secretary of State Colin Powell who suggested that what is going on there is genocide, and if – we should call it what it is, and we should use everything possible to put an end to genocide in Darfur, and get China to use its influence and bring it to bear on the leaders in Sudan.

QUESTION: Congressman, there was a big controversy on the political caricature on the New York Post, and I would like to ask you, what do you think that – racial prejudice is still there in the U.S. media or American media? This kind of racial prejudice is the – it seems to me somewhat stronger in the media than the – out of – in the rest of the world.

MR. LEWIS: Well, in America, because of our long history, going back to the days of slavery and to the present, we live in a race-conscious society. We’re very conscious. And there have been a long history of stereotypes. I don’t know what has been the reaction of some of the people in the Administration, but apparently, in some parts of the American community, the cartoon in the New York Post struck a raw nerve. I’ve only seen it abroad, when I was abroad. I just got back last night, late last night, and I saw it on television abroad. I think people have to be sensitive, whether you’re writing an editorial or writing a story, whether it’s a cartoonist who is trying to make a point for some type of editorial.

No one, but no one in the country such as – want to deny members of the media freedom of the press. People have a right to draw and print. That’s in keeping with our basic constitutional rights, our Bill of Rights in America. But a large number of people saw this as offensive, and whether it was a reference to the President or not, we don’t know what was in the mind of the cartoonist.

QUESTION: Thank you, Congressman Lewis. My name is Harima from Tokyo Broadcasting, Japanese major networks. I believe you have witnessed the various process of – various stage of the long Civil Rights Movement history. And now we see the first black President. But on the other hand, is still the racist issue in this society to be discussed, to be overcome. And how do you define this moment in the history of civil rights movement, as well as the history of the United States?

MR. LEWIS: Well, the moment that we witnessed, with the election of Barack Obama last November and the swearing-in of him just last month, must be looked upon as an unbelievable moment in the history of America, and maybe in the history of a people. To me, it is almost unreal.

I remember the night that he was declared the winner. I jumped and I shouted, and I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. I started crying. I didn’t think my feet were ever going to touch the floor again. And a member of the media asked me and said, you’re crying so much tonight, what are you going to do when he takes the Oath of Office? I said, if I have any tears left, I’m going to cry some more. And that’s exactly what I did.

It says something about America. It says something that we’re still struggling in this country, in this democracy, to create a more perfect union. We’re not there yet. We have not yet created the beloved community. We have not yet created or fulfilled the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But I’ll tell you one thing. It is a down payment, it’s a major down payment, on the fulfillment of this dream.

Just think, a few short years ago, less than 44 years ago, in many parts of the American South, people of color could not register to vote, not until after the voting rights that was passed by the Congress, and finally into law by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6th, 1965. There was hundreds and thousands and millions of people, and now some of these same people, or their grandchildren or their great-grandchildren, are now voting and participating with hundreds and thousands and million of others to elect Barack Obama as President of the United States.

So we on our way toward the creation of a truly multiracial, democratic society in America. There may be some setbacks. There may be some disappointments. But as a nation and as a people, we on our way.

MODERATOR: Congressman Lewis, we have a center in New York. New York, you have a question? Go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, I have two questions. My name is Martin Gelin. I’m from a Swedish newspaper. First question is: What specific policies do you think the President can implement to improve things for the African American community? And the second question is: The Republican Party have, for the first time, an African American chairman, Michael Steele, and the African American support for the Republicans has been pretty steady, at like 4 or 5 percent for the last ten years. Why do think it’s been so low? And do you think that Michael Steele is going to be able change that?

MR. LEWIS: Well, the President and his Administration, working with members of the Congress on both sides of the House, must continue to do what is necessary to improve the lives of all Americans. There’s still too many of our people that have been left out and left behind. We have a healthcare disparity. We’ve got to close the gap in education. We got to find a way to put, at the top of the American agenda, the concern and the need of the least among us, the very poor.

People have been doing very well until recent months. But in spite of the level of improvement, the growing number of African American and other minorities that are entering the middle class, there’s too many people that are left out and left behind. It’s not only African Americans, but there are low income whites, and Latinos and Asian American and Native American. So we all got to be caught up and brought into the mainstream of the American way of life.

Now, when it comes to the like of African Americans supporting the Republican Party, I think African American, like other American, have a keen sense of their friends. The Republican Party must become very sensitive to the needs of all American and not just those at the top, but all American.

I think Michael Steele is going to have a very difficult road to hoe and a difficult job to bring African American to the fore. Simply because a person is black and head of a party, it doesn’t mean that the great majority of blacks, African Americans, are going to follow him. He ran for the Senate in the state of Maryland, and the great majority of black America in Maryland did not vote for him.

MODERATOR: We take another one from New York.

QUESTION: Thank you so much for speaking to us, sir. My name is Andreas Bondevik. I’m a correspondent from the Norwegian News Agency. I’d like to take the opportunity to ask you, the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo and your friend Mr. Gleditsch, has invited you to the 50th anniversary this year. I just wanted to ask you if you know if you have time to come and speak here in Oslo, and if so, when that will be? Thank you.

MR. LEWIS: We have received an invitation. And we will give the invitation very careful consideration. I would love to come and spend some time. In 1966, when I was chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the students in the Scandinavian countries invited me to come and I spent several weeks traveling, and I would love to do it again.

But this time, you know, I’m a member of the Congress and I don’t like missing votes. I like to try to represent the people that sent me to Washington. But if we can find the time to do it, we will come.

MODERATOR: Okay. We’ll take one more question from New York.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Jacquelien Nienhuis. I work for a Dutch newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad. You just said that we are there – not there yet, but Obama’s victory is a major down payment for Mr. Martin Luther King’s dream. What do you feel is now the biggest priority for American Civil Rights Movement to fulfill this dream?

MR. LEWIS: Well, if you’re going to see meaningful changes in the days, months, and years to come in America, it’s not just going to be about civil rights, but more about human rights. And there must be a coalition, similar to the coalition of the ‘60s, a coalition of conscience. In a real sense, we must pick up where Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy left off in 1968.

At the time that Martin Luther King., Jr., was assassinated in April 1968, he was organizing something called the Poor People’s Campaign, where he was trying to bring to Washington to put on the American agenda the concerns and needs of all segments of the American society. We have to find a way to say to those of us in the Congress, and say to the new Administration, and say to our business leaders, our religious leaders, the media, and people in the academic community, that we’re all in this thing together and we got to look out for each other, that in a sense, we’re one America, we’re one people, we’re one family, we’re one house, the American family, the American house. And we all live in this world together.

That’s what I tried to say in India during the past week, that we got to create a society at peace with itself, here in America and around the world, that we got to spend our limited resources on taking care of those that are in need. We have a right to know in America, and we have a right to know in the world, what is in the food we eat, what is in the air we breathe, what is in the water we drink, and make this little piece of real estate that we call the earth, this little planet look greener and to look cleaner and to look peaceful for all of us who dwell among our fellow human beings.

MODERATOR: Okay, we have time for one more question, and we’ll go to the back.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Wait for the mike.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Congressman Lewis. My name is Shogo Kawakita with Kyodo News, Japanese news wire service. I have two questions, if I may. One is, you just mentioned the United States has not achieved a perfect union. Could you briefly tell us the definition of a perfect union? That’s my first question. Then secondly, President Obama is now trying to rebuild a moral leadership in the world, which was undermined under Bush Administration. But he has faced – he is facing challenges, that is, the threat of terrorism. How should the United States reconcile the security and civil liberty?

MR. LEWIS: Well, I may not be able to give you the best definition for a more perfect union. But an all-inclusive community – we must include everybody. No one, but no one, must be left out or left behind. But I think we will know when it’s perfect, maybe will not become – be perfect. But when we come to that moment, come to that state in America or in this world, where we recognize the dignity – respected dignity and the worth of every human being, and that we do not violate the human rights of people, and we guarantee people to meet that basic need, that is important in any society. And in America, we could serve as a model for the rest of the world.

When it comes to the issue of terrorism, there is not any room in our society for terrorism. And wherever it exists, there must be effort to combat it, but not with just bombs and missiles and guns. There must be in our country and in the world more people-to-people diplomacy, people getting to know each other. I would love to see our country spend millions and billions of dollars for more Peace Corps volunteers, sending people all over the world to meet and work with other people, that we do more cultural exchanges, having young people from other parts of the world come to America, and have American young people travel to other parts of the world to engage in educational exchanges, cultural exchanges.

One of the things that I’ve been thinking about since coming back from India, that we can have some type of – not – fellowships where young people from India come to America to study the way of Martin Luther King, Jr., to study the Civil Rights Movement, and having young people from America to go to India to study the way of Gandhi and pass it on to generation and generation, and you create a sea of humanity all over the world, not just in India but in the other part of Asia and Europe and in Central and South America.

Thank you very much.

MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you so much, Congressman for coming today. We’re happy to have you. You were very informative, and thank you for coming.

MR. LEWIS: Thank you.

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