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.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:
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: 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.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.
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.”
“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?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.
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.
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.