This February, the Library is celebrating Black History Month with several articles taken from interviews of influential figures in the HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Today the focus is on two figures in politics: United States Congressman from Georgia and civil rights icon, John Lewis, and United States Congresswoman from California, Maxine Waters.
The Honorable John Lewis (1940-2020)
Civil rights leader and U.S. congressman John Lewis (1940-2020) was a lifelong activist. At the time of his death, he had been a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. Often referred to as the “conscience of the Congress,” Lewis was one of the “Big Six” of the Civil Rights Movement (with Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Whitney Young, James Farmer, and Roy Wilkins). In 1963, he met with President Kennedy to discuss the planning of the “March on Washington,” and in 1965, Lewis and fellow activist Hosea Williams led “Bloody Sunday”, one of the most dramatic nonviolent protests of the civil rights movement.
By the time John Lewis was four, his father had saved 300 dollars, enough to buy 110 acres near Troy, AL, and the family moved into a “tin top house surrounded by pecan trees.” Although they were no longer tenant farmers, poverty forced the family to continue farming on shares, renting other land and sharing half of what they produced with the landowner. Lewis practiced for the ministry by preaching to chickens and is convinced “that most of those chickens … tended to listen to me better than some of my colleagues [in Congress]. At least they produced eggs.” In order to go to school, he would hide under the porch, listen for the school bus, and “run out and get on …” Otherwise, his father would keep him at home “plowing a mule, picking cotton, pulling corn, gathering peanuts …”
After graduation, Lewis applied to all-white Troy State University ten miles away, “submitted my application, my high school transcript — I never heard a word from the school.” He had his first meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he wrote to the civil rights leader asking for advice. King wanted to know how committed he was, warning that a lawsuit against the all-white institution might prove dangerous not only to him but his family. Lewis opted to go to the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville where he didn’t have to pay tuition, just room and board.
Influenced by Rev. James Lawson of the Methodist Student Movement, Lewis and other Black and white college students, went every Tuesday for a year “to a little Methodist Church near Fisk University where we studied the great religions of the world … It was there that I immersed myself in the philosophy of non-violence.”
Lewis had many opportunities to put into personal practice his belief that “You cannot use violence [to] bring about a loving community — a community at peace with itself.” As one of the first Freedom Riders challenging segregated interstate bus travel in 1961, Lewis and his seatmate, “a white gentleman named Albert Bigelow,” were “knocked down in “a so-called white waiting room [in Rock Hill, S.C.] and left lying there … in a pool of blood. The local police officials showed up and asked did we want to press charges. And we said, ‘No.’” At another time, Lewis was bashed over the head with a crate and rendered unconscious when a mob attacked the riders in Montgomery, AL.
Nonviolence, however, did not temper Lewis’ speech at the Lincoln Memorial in the 1963 March on Washington. Toward the end, his language warmed to a level then considered “inflammatory”: “You tell us to wait and to be patient. But we cannot be patient. We cannot wait. The black masses are restless. We’re involved in a serious revolution.” It was an expression then of the type of militant nonviolence that Lewis would practice the rest of his life, whether crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge to Selma, AL on Bloody Sunday in 1965, or in the halls of Congress.
The Honorable Maxine Waters (1938- )
Maxine Waters’ life in public service began In 1966 when she was hired as an assistant teacher with the newly formed Head Start program in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Waters’ concern for parents’ rights led her to become involved in local politics, and in 1973 she went to work as chief deputy to City Councilman David Cunningham. In 1976, Waters successfully ran for election to the California State Assembly, and in 1990 successfully ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, where she’s been active on many issues, including affirmative action, community development, women’s health and welfare reform.
The aroma of frying sausage and biscuits baking, and the sounds of gospel music are what Congresswoman Maxine Waters [b. Maxine Carr] remembers from Sunday mornings in the neighborhood where she grew up in St. Louis, MO. “Everybody created their own little quartet in those days …” She and her sisters had an “all-girls quartet where we sang gospel songs. Not for anybody special, for ourselves.” A the age of 12 or 13 she started working summers, cleaning tables in a segregated restaurant. She adds, “we had to eat our food in the basement.”
In school, Waters was “mature in [her] thinking” and read the U.S. Constitution — “the first amendment, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, that was very special,” she said. She also “loved … talking about soil erosion and planting and how to protect the earth.”
As a child in a single parent household that survived much of the time on public assistance, Waters “aspired to be a social worker.” “The social workers who came to your house were the professional that you got to see” and “they had the power to help people.” Before graduation, she moved to Colorado with her serviceman husband Edward Waters and their first child, never doubting that she would finish school. In 1961, the growing family came to California where Waters worked for the phone company and was able to finished high school.
In 1966 Waters was hired as an assistant teacher in the Head Start early childhood development program. “Head Start was almost a defining moment in my life,” she says, “working with the children in the classroom, it was about families. It was about communities … what our expectations were and what we cared about, and what we’d like to see.” She enrolled at California State University at Los Angeles, continued to teach at Head Start, and worked to keep the program funded, which led to work in political campaigns, a short step away from her own campaign for a California assembly seat in 1976.
“I had a lot of grassroots support and women’s support” Waters says, “women from all communities … white women [in a] rather conservative part [of the district] … and it all just came together and it worked.” In the Assembly, she introduced bills that divested pension funds from firms doing business in South Africa, stopped police from strip-searching people for nonviolent offenses, forced insurance companies to pay for reconstructive surgery after mastectomies, and instituted the first statewide child abuse prevention program.
When the lines of the district represented by Congressman Augustus Hawkins were to be redrawn, taking him “out of a large part of the black community and [putting] him in hostile territory,” Waters “created a big fight about that and moved those lines back, and it was at that point that I really knew I was going to run for that seat because I feel very strongly about protecting those lines.” She did run (and win) in 1990, and she’s been protecting those lines, and the people inside them, ever since.