John Lewis discusses the way he grew up!


Being taught about being human: Most Sunday mornings, we listen to part of Krista Tippett’s NPR program, On Being.

For our money, Tippett has the most unusual voice on radio—the voice which is least like the others. Yesterday morning, she interviewed Rep. John Lewis for the full hour about the way he grew up.

You can hear the whole interview here, or you can access the transcript. As he started, Lewis described his life at age 14:
LEWIS (3/31/13): 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. But back 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.

We grew up very, very poor—six brothers, three sisters, wonderful mother, wonderful father, wonderful grandparents. But growing up as a child, I saw segregation and racial discrimination, and I didn't like it. And I would ask my mother and my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, “Why?” They would say, "That's the way it is. Don't get in the way. Don't get in trouble."

But attending church and Sunday school, reading the Bible, the teaching of the great teacher, and being deeply influenced by what I saw all around me, it was this belief that somehow and some way things were going to get better, that you have this sense of hope, a sense of optimism and have faith. And people would say to me, my mother would say over and over again, "Work hard."

And sometime working in the field, I would say to my mother, "This is hard work, and this work is about to kill me." And she would say, "Boy, hard work never killed anybody." So I worked very, very hard as a child.
Lewis described hearing about Rosa Parks when he was 15. He described hearing Dr. King on the radio. He described the way his "inquisitive" mind caused his family to view him:
LEWIS: During that period, I raised a lot of questions and I asked a lot of questions of my mother, my father, other ministers around. They accused me of being nosy, and I thought of myself as just wanting to know. I was inquisitive.

When I heard about the Supreme Court decision in 1954, I thought the next school year that I would go to a better school. At least it would be a desegregated school. I wouldn't have to ride a broken-down bus and I would be able to get new books, but it never happened for me. It never happened, but I didn't give up. I didn't become bitter or hostile. I kept the faith and I remembered hearing about what happened to Emmett Till, and I thought, “If something like this can happen to a young man, young boy, it could happen to any of us.”
In some detail, Lewis described the extensive training in non-violence he and others received within the nascent civil rights movement. “Long before any sit-in, any march, long before the freedom rides, or the march from Selma to Montgomery, any organized campaign that took place, we did study,” he said.

“We studied. We studied what Gandhi attempted to do in South Africa, what he accomplished in India. We studied Thoreau and civil disobedience. We studied the great religions of the world. And before we even discussed a possibility of a sit-in, we had role-playing. We had what we called social drama.”

Lewis went into more detail about the type of training he received and about the moral sense it engendered. For our money, this was the day’s most instructive exchange:
TIPPETT: In the way I come to understand this as I, again, study you is—the point of all of this role-playing was not just about being practically prepared. You know, I suspect that some neuroscientist now in the 21st century probably understands what happens in our brain somehow with what you knew about that moment of eye contact and human connection. But you also understood this to be a spiritual confrontation first within yourselves and then with the world outside. Is that right?

LEWIS: You're so right. First of all, you have to grow. It's just not something that is natural. You have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. And in the religious sense, in the moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being, there is a spark of the divine. So you don't have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the divine in your fellow human being.

We, from time to time, would discuss if you see someone attacking you, beating you, spitting on you, you have to think of that person, you know, years ago that person was an innocent child, innocent little baby. And so what happened? Something go wrong? Did the environment? Did someone teach that person to hate, to abuse others? So you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being and you don't give up. You never give up on anyone.
We thought of the way Dr. King described Montgomery’s city fathers in his early book, Stride Toward Freedom. “Even their churches and ministers” had taught them to think the way they did, Dr. King marveled, more in pity than in anger, when he was just 27. For fuller text, click here.

Increasingly, the liberal world is built around the enterprise of hating the others—the people who aren’t as morally perfect as we so plainly are. Yesterday morning, Lewis and Tippett were working a different field.


  1. "Increasingly, the liberal world is built around the enterprise of hating the others—the people who aren’t as morally perfect as we so plainly are."

    Maybe that's the way you view the "liberal world" whatever that is, but I happen to think that people who are working for such causes as universal health care, nuclear disarmament, care for the environment, and the more equitable sharing of resources and wealth aren't doing so out of hate, but out of love.

    And they keep plugging away at it, generation after generation, not because not because they hate "others -- the people who aren't as morally perfect as we so plainly are," but because they recognize that "divine spark" that Lewis so plainly sees that exists in the soul of humanity, and will one day bring us the world we envision, even if it takes several more lifetimes.

    So get off your own psuedo-intellectual high horse, Somerby. And get off your ass and actually contribute. It's easy to sit there in front of your computer and paint the entire "liberal world" with the same broad brush. A lot easier than getting off your keister and actually contributing.

    By the way, I couldn't describe the Atwater/Rovian tactic of divide and conquer any better than "hating the others—the people who aren’t as morally perfect as we so plainly are."

    1. "Get off your a$$ and actually contribute"

      Well, thank goodness you don't think you are morally superior to him or something.

      But yeah, the "liberal world" is more like "the left side of the M$M and the blogosphere" than it is an actual world, but there is no shortage of examples of TV pundits, writers and blog posts expressing "hatred for the others" to massive applause. Hate, it seems, sells about as much as sex.

  2. Oh, and one more thing. While Dr. King never failed to love the sinner, he also never failed to call the sin what it was.

    I know that's bad form in Somerby World, and only shows how much liberals are guilty of "hating the others—the people who aren’t as morally perfect as we so plainly are."

    1. Wait, Anonymous, do you mean to suggest that King might've dropped the R-bomb? Horrors! You mean he might have pointed out racism where it existed? And called it racism?

      What dumb politics. Surely King must've known this would hurt LBJ and the Democrats! Surely he must've known this was no way to advance progressive interests.

  3. Wow. I see where you're coming from, but I don't read this blog and interpret the "liberal world" as"

    "people working for such causes as universal health care, nuclear disarmament, care for the environment, and the more equitable sharing of resources and wealth aren't doing so out of hate, but out of love."

    I always think of the "liberal world" at the TDH as referring to the kind of mainstream Democratic, neo liberal, increasingly right leaning liberal pundits and folks who read the Times and Post or watch cable news. The "liberal world" as it exists in the media entertainment complex and to whatever extent folks get their facts and opinions from that context. Or to whatever extent the media might influence discourse that finds its way to into how liberal might think about that world.

    But maybe that's a problem with how I read this blog. (No snark intended).

    1. Sure, if your only source of information about the "liberal world" was this blog, you'd think it was entirely centered on the NYT op-ed page, and whatever happened on MSNBC last night.

      And Somerby just loves to show off his moral superiority by comparing himself to say, Maureen Dowd, then claim that is how the "liberal world" operates. It's a trick worthy of Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh.

      And it moves "American discourse" forward exactly how?

    2. Ok. I get it. But I don't know what you want this blog to focus on.

      I know plenty about multiple "liberal worlds", but this blog for better or worse isn't talking about the people mentioned in the above comment. And, yeah, the assumption at TDH is that the major media are important in shaping the public discourse. It's a media criticism blog by and large, right?

      So, is what irritates you a reduction of the "liberal world" and that you want Bob to acknowledge or address a wider liberal world? Because, that seems like a really different blog than TDH. Again, no snark intended, just trying to understand the criticism.

    3. Oh look, man!

      "What irritates" Our Own Anonymous (who's been hanging around here forever despite multiple past promises to shove off...) is that Somerby's swipes at the "liberal world" hit a little too close to home.


      Our Anonymous is a himself a hater, plain and simple and doesn't like seeing that mode of liberal loathing called out by Somerby.

      His piss-fits are boilerplate at this late date.

    4. 2:14. since you want to engage in a discussion (as opposed to 6:43 who wants to wallow in his own smug self-righteousness), what I really want this blog to be is what it once was back when more than 300 or so people were reading it.

      Bob was both a pioneer and brilliant when he was exposing how right-wing echo chamber narrative so easily made it into the pages of the so-called "mainstream media" and actually had a stranglehold on the "American discourse".

      We actually have a guy sitting in the White House who has, if not destroyed all that, then certainly overcome it through charisma and above all else, competence in office, something his predecessor sorely lacked. They've thrown their worst at him, and he's still standing.

      But Bob has missed all that. Instead, he's like an aging '70s band that keeps playing old "hits", hence how everything eventually is about the Election of 2000, and the book he's never quite gotten around to finishing.

      And the only new tunes he signs is the easy target about how horrible awful these whippersnappers are who seemed to have gone from blogging to MSNBC, while he sits in front of his computer blogging to an ever dwindling audience.

    5. You don't give Somerby his due. There were not blogs like his back in Clinton and Gore's time in office. The crap the Times was printing back then was horrid journalism and there was very little pushback from the moderate left. The Clinton scandals outside of Monica were all fabricated and by the time Monica came around there was a well-endowed special prosecutor with wiretapping power on a well-endowed witch-hunt while being fed false leads by a Clinton-hating FBI head Louis Freeh. You severely underestimate how much worse the right-wing arrogance was in Clinton's Presidency compared to Obama's. Newt Gingrich and Contract for America make Ryan and Boehner look moderate. Remeber too that much of the moderate Democrat base mocked Hilary for her 'vast right-wing conspiracy' statement. They weren't laughing a few years later when Bush and Cheney started fucking things over.
      Anyway, it's much harder for the Times to get away with the Whitewater-style crap nowadays because of people like Bob. Look at the way he and Glen Greenwald and others abused and humiliated the Judith Miller type reportage in the build-up to Iraq. That was a good thing.

    6. My two cents (i'm anon 2:14) is that I can see wanting Bob to be tracking the echo chamber into the mainstream. I get that.

      I appreciate ,however, his focus on criticizing the corporate left. As well as his increasing criticism of liberals in general.

      In part I think the focus is useful because one day a Republican will once again be in the White House. And, at that moment I suspect we will want better liberal media champions that the ones we have now. And we will want a media culture that is better able to call BS, better able use logic and reason. Because, I believe, we actually do have better ideas when they can actually be articulated.

      So, that's what works for me about Bob's focus now. I actually think he's taking a somewhat longer view of things than just when a Dem's in charge.

  4. It's not liberalism per se that is the problem. It's the blind hatred of the opposition exemplified by terms like "wingnut" and the attitude of superiority that goes with them that I think is problematic.

    1. Anon 2:29,
      When someone sends me an email that claims FBI homicide weapons stats show more Americans are killed by baseball bats than guns, you can bet your sweet patootie I feel smarter than them.

      Now, I don't hate them but I do have a bit of controlled rage for the shithead that authored that email. (Pardon my French.)

      If the wingnut fits, screw it on.

  5. Somerby, who has turned the great, prophetic Dr. King into a Hallmark card, would've had a field day with this back in the day:

    "And I come by here to say that America too is going to Hell, if we don’t use her wealth. If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty, to make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to Hell."

    Bob, was this "smart politics"? What do the analysts think?

    1. Well, contextually, this was the speech that people talk much less about because it was 1968 and he protesting the Vietnam War and taking on poverty.

      And wasn't this also the speech in which he suggested a work stoppage in Memphis. And after this speech he led a march that turned into the only violent protest of his career - that he was totally ashamed of.

      I agree King is whitewashed if you don't include his objections to the war and capitalism. But, I'm not clear what your argument is or how it relates to Bob.

    2. Bob cherry picks the aspects of King that support his points and ignores the parts of King that were more divisive and condemning of The Other Side. King is a more complex and even contradictory man than Bob acknowledges. He'd have had a field day with King's more divisive rhetoric.

    3. So you want him to pay attention to stuff King said that doesn't help him make his larger point? Why, exactly?

      I agree King was complex and divisive at times. But that doesn't mean I'm obligated to tackle the whole of his complexity to make a point about what I think is a good way to approach politics or political thought. What King said in 1957 isn't undone by what he said in 1968. I don't necessarily see that as cherry picking. Isn't that just how one makes a point when tackling a complex subject. Unless you want to write a thesis about it? What you have Bob say if he wanted to laud King's statement and make the same basic point?

  6. An example of "liberal" analysis that Mr. Somerby should be happy about but doesn't cover, stuck too much in NYT and MSNBC, as "liberals" flocked only there for information and analysis:

    1. So you want Bob to point to Esquire too? That's the problem with TDH for you? He spends too much time criticizing two of the largest, most influential media institutions (not just in terms of civilian audience, but in terms of who others in the media look too as well) that also happen to carry the Liberal mantle for pundits and readers alike.

      It's great that analysis happens in Rolling Stone, and GQ, and Vanity Fair. But, again, widening his scope and focusing on those less influential publications seems like you just want him to write a different blog.

    2. So Bob has decided that the most influential media voices are those on MSNBC and the NYT op-ed pages? And those are the only voices worthy of his scrutiny?

      I couldn't put the problems with what this blog has devolved into better than that.

    3. Well I don't think he's decided on his own that those are the most influential mainstream media "liberal" voices. We're talking about a cable news network and the New York Times. Both routinely define the "liberal" viewpoint in mainstream discourse. If you're to the left of the NYT op ed page or MSNBC you're essentially a commie in mainstream discourse. And, even, Krugman gets written off as the most liberal of a "left leaning" op ed page.

      Maybe the media landscape has changed substantially and you feel like you want Bob to catch up to that. I can see that POV. The NYT ain't what it was in terms of influence.

      But, I still don't see what it is you want him to do exactly. Just talk about whatever publications he randomly picks up? That's a different blog, no?

    4. Seems to me the main complaint is "Bob isn't loyal to the tribe". If he would only restrict his criticism to the other side, which is the truly horrible one, then all would be well. He could be forgiven of his heresy and apostasy.

  7. What a fascinating and moving testimony a generation and a people.

    I wouldn't presume upon the hardship of Lewis and company to appreciate this,but there's an irony and a sadness in the fact that as bad as things were then, today's society has lost something true and good from the past.

  8. Sad that in this post, worthwhile as it is, you feel the closing zinger about the Liberals coming a mile away. Too bad Dr. King didn't live a little longer. Then, like Bob, He could have seen "Easy Rider" and learned the truth about those dirty Devil worshiping hippies.

    1. Oh, Greg, don't you know by now: the zinger is the whole point of every post. He's like my tedious mother in law: all of her windy tales and parables lead to one destination: how much she hates her husband.

      I was shocked he didn't somehow work The Liberal World into his post on Rabbi Schacter.

  9. There's one zinger that didn't make it into the discussion, so I'll toss it in now.

    How'd being nonviolent work out personally for Gandhi and Dr. King?

  10. John Lewis has had some downright tribal and divisive things to say about the tea baggers and the GOP.

    1. What were those things?

      And why, if they in fact were "tribal and divisive," would it be relevant? It wouldn't prove anything other than that Lewis can screw up. So?

    2. Who said anything about Lewis screwing up? He doesn't follow the exacting, censorious, fussy Howlerian script. Bravo for that.

  11. John Lewis is a better human than I'll ever be.

    1. Because I personally can't think of any reason NOT to hate people like this: