'Get in the Way': The way of civil rights hero John Lewis

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Posted: Feb 09, 2017 1:29 PM
'Get in the Way': The way of civil rights hero John Lewis

NEW YORK (AP) —    John Lewis speaks with passion, resolve and dignity.

          He says things like, "Hate is too heavy a burden to bear" and "Nonviolence is love in action" — not what you expect, or necessarily buy, coming from a U.S. congressman, which Lewis has been for three decades.

           But Lewis' life is a mighty testament to the truth of what he says, and to his policy of saying what he means.

           No wonder Lewis was widely heeded when, during an interview a week before the inauguration, he stated that he did not view Donald Trump as a "legitimate president."

           No wonder scorn and catcalls greeted Trump's tweet that slammed Lewis as "all talk, talk, talk — no action or results. Sad!"

          Airing Friday on PBS (10:30 p.m. EST), "John Lewis: Get in the Way" doesn't address the nascent Trump regime. But events of recent weeks signal a new urgency to see this inspiring film portrait, and yet another reason to honor Lewis' action and results that some, like Trump, appear unwilling to acknowledge. The civil rights struggle that has occupied most of Lewis' 76 years is facing a tidal wave of new challenges — or, at least, that's what many people fear. The values he embodies are more important than ever.

          Still "getting in the way" in the name of equality, Lewis stands heroically as a link from the current day back to the oppressive Jim Crow South and the nonviolent movement that sprang from it.

          The son of Alabama sharecroppers, Lewis at the age of 15 first heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio. He felt King was speaking directly to him.

          As a student activist in Nashville, Tennessee, he joined in lunch counter sit-ins. When he left home his mother had warned him not to get into trouble.

         "But I got into trouble," he recalls. "Good trouble. Necessary trouble."

         Trouble, yes, but a youthful Lewis is seen explaining to a 1950s newsreel camera, "I had to keep loving the people who denied me service."

         During one of these peaceful sit-ins, he was arrested and jailed. It was his first arrest. It was hardly the last. When graduation day arrived at his Nashville college in 1961, he missed it: "I was in jail in Mississippi during the Freedom Rides."

Worse awaited Lewis.

         The Freedom Riders were challenging scofflaw Southern states that flouted federal mandates banning segregation in public transportation. But despite promises of police protection for an integrated Greyhound busload of activists from Montgomery, Alabama, this protection evaporated as the bus pulled into Birmingham. The passengers, Lewis among them, were ambushed by a waiting mob that numbered in the hundreds.

          "I was beaten, hit in the head with a wooden crate," says Lewis.

          In 1965, he led the Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama, where, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers attacked peaceful protesters with billy clubs, bullwhips and tear gas. Lewis sustained serious injuries.

         "I didn't ask to be beaten on the bridge. I don't like pain," Lewis recalls. "But that's just the price you have to pay to make things better for others."

          Photos and newsreels of the attack (central to the acclaimed 2014 feature "Selma") horrified the nation. Within months, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.

         These momentous events were captured in archival footage and photos seen in the documentary. And there's Lewis, in the thick of it.

         In 1986, after years as an Atlanta-based voter-registration activist, he won the congressional seat for Georgia's 5th District.

In the film he is seen in Congress, successfully fighting in 2010 for passage of the health care law. In 2011, he is in Atlanta, speaking out at an immigration reform rally. He is seen at gay pride rallies and calling for tightened gun control.

        And in 2013 he responds to a serious setback for a cause particularly dear to him: The U.S. Supreme Court had thrown out a major part of the Voting Rights Law that required states with a history of voter discrimination to get federal approval before changing their election practices.

         "I think what the court did today is stab the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its very heart," he tells C-SPAN.

         But there's no hint of vitriol from Lewis. And no trace of despair.

"We're talking about building a lasting peace, a community at peace with itself," he declares at another moment, as if to sum up his version of getting in the way. His voice remains powerful. And as this film should demonstrate to anyone, he is much more than talk.

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore@ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore

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