Photograph By Rebecca Hale
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John Lewis is a recipient of the highest civilian honor in the United States, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Photograph By Rebecca Hale

‘We have to believe that we’re one people, one family’

Racism is real and must not be dismissed—but it can be overcome, says congressional and civil rights leader John Lewis.

This story appears in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Throughout 2018 National Geographic has produced special reports on diversity in America. We began in April—at the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination—with an entire issue looking at race, including racist behavior in our organization’s history. To cap this year’s coverage, we sought the insights of John Lewis. In his youth he marched for civil rights with King; today, at 78, the Georgia Democrat has served 16 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Susan Goldberg: It feels like discourse about race and diversity in the United States has taken on such a hard edge. I wonder if you share that feeling and if you could reflect on why that is.
John Lewis: I do share that feeling—and what made it so plain to me was what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, a year ago. Since those early days of the civil rights movement we’ve made so much progress—with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the election of President Barack Obama—and come so far. Then to witness [violent protests by white nationalists], it made me so sad that I cried. The climate is so toxic.

Why do you think it has become so much more toxic?
I think the political climate created a way for many individuals to believe that you can say anything or do anything and it’s OK. But it’s not OK.

After the election of President Obama we heard the suggestion that we’ve become a post-racial society. People wanted to believe that; they wanted to feel that way. But the scars and stings of racism are still deeply embedded in our society. From time to time we try to hide it, but we cannot sweep it under the American rug. We cannot dismiss it. It is real.

Do you think there can be such a thing as a post-racial society?
I’ve always believed, since the early days of the civil rights movement, that we could be what Dr. King called the “beloved community.” That we can lay down the burden of race. I believe it is possible to come to that point where we create a sense of oneness.

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During a 1966 march through Mississippi to encourage African Americans to register and vote, civil rights activists John Lewis (in light-colored raincoat) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (at right) sing “We Shall Overcome.”

If Dr. King could come back now, what do you believe he would think about how things are?
I think he would be somewhat disappointed that we’ve not gone much farther down that road to create a truly integrated society. He would say, “What happened to my dream?” And we should be much further along. There’s been some interruption, especially in the political arena, but the religious and educational institutions are still trying to build this beloved community, still trying to redeem the soul of America. The whole debate about immigration and building a wall, trying to keep certain people out—that’s not helpful, to turn against a group of people because of where their ancestors came from or where they’re trying to come from.

Where do you see that things are better? What makes you feel hopeful?
I go back to where I grew up, in rural Alabama 50 miles from Montgomery outside a little town called Troy. I visit schools—and some of these elementary, middle, and high schools are among the most integrated schools in America. It gives me a great deal of hope to see how people in these small towns and rural communities know that they have to come together and work together.

At 23 you were the youngest person to address the 1963 March on Washington. Two years later, marching toward Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, you were beaten by police. You’ve become a congressman and spokesman for civil rights. How do you see your role in history?
Well, I feel more than lucky. I really feel deeply blessed by the lives I’ve been able to live the past many years. People across America have been very, very good to me—and it doesn’t matter whether they’re black or white, Latino, Asian American, Native American people, newcomers. When they see me, they thank me. They come up, and they’re crying and say, “You’re my hero.”

Why do you think they cry?
People who’ve studied the civil rights movement … I don’t know, I sound like I’m talking too much about myself! But it’s this feeling that I represent something that’s part of change in America.

I think they’re reminded of that sense of hope that people had. What will it take to regain that?
We have to be taught to be unafraid—and political leaders must play a major role. We have to believe that we’re one people, one family. And we cannot turn against each other. We have to turn to each other.