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.