One of the highlights of BIFF 2011 was “Freedom Riders,” the feature documentary about the battle to end segregation in interstate travel in 1961. It garnered two sold-out screenings, both of which were attended by a very special guest, civil rights leader and U.S. Representative John Lewis.
The Congressman, who turns 71 tomorrow, was welcomed to the stage of the Boulder Theater after the screening with a standing ovation. BIFF’s Ron Bostwick interviewed him, and the audience joined in for a question-and-answer session as well.
Here’s the gist of his discussion:
He described growing up in the small town of Troy, Alabama and “tasting the bitter fruits of racism – I didn’t like it.” His parents urged him not to rock the boat. However, he noted that when he was 17 he met Rosa Parks, whose famous refusal to give up her bus seat to a white person had taken place two years earlier; the next year, when Lewis was 18, he met Martin Luther King, Jr. “Then,” he said, “I started getting into trouble.”
He talked about learning the philosophy of non-violence in college at Fisk University. “We learned it not as a tactic or as a technique,” he said, “but as a way of life. As Dr. King told us once, ‘You just have to love the hell out of everybody.’”
He described the occasion of his first arrest on Feb. 27, 1960: “I felt liberated. I felt so free. I felt as though I had crossed over . . . I came to that place where I lost all sense of fear. What we believed in was so good, so right, so necessary that we had to do what was necessary to end racial discrimination. In a real sense, we were soldiers, on a mission to redeem the soul of America.”
He talked about the importance of music in the civil rights movement as a source of cohesiveness and forward impulse. “If it hadn’t been for music, the civil rights movement would have been a bird without wings,” he said.
During the Q & A period, he spoke to the topic of the recent protests that brought regime change in Egypt (“It’s not obsolete!” he remarked of the non-violent approach), the phrase “illegal immigrants” (“There’s no such thing as an illegal human being,” he said, to great applause).
He talked about looking forward to the 50th anniversary reunion of the living Freedom Riders, who number about 300 today.
When asked about what one can do in everyday life to advance the cause of human rights, Lewis said, “Say ‘thank you.’ Say ‘excuse me.’ Why are we so mean to each other? Is it old-fashioned, is it out of date, to be human?”
It was remarkable to see and hear this peaceable warrior speak of the stuff of childhood memory and life-long admiration. For those of us old enough to remember those dark times and the bravery of the few who changed society for the better, it was a powerful affirmation. For the very young, I hope it served as an inspiration.