Thursday, February 21

Kitchen to Classroom: "Getting into Good Trouble Since 1960"

Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, 1943. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. 
"Kitchen to Classroom" is a weekly dispatch from our postdoctoral fellow, Angela Jill Cooley. 

Photo of John Lewis courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives website.
Today is the 73rd birthday of John Lewis, an activist who, among other things, helped desegregate our nation’s restaurants. In the late 1950s, Lewis joined the Nashville Student Movement, a civil rights organization committed to nonviolent passive resistance. Lewis studied the history, philosophy, and methods of nonviolence. “You have to do more than just not hit back,” he recalls. “You have to have no desire to hit back.”

Lewis (l) prays during a demonstration in 1962. Photo courtesy of John Lewis for Congress.

In early February 1960, in response to the Woolworth’s sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Nashville Student Movement stepped up its plans for a full-scale, nonviolent assault on segregation. Thirteen days following Greensboro, Lewis sat at another Woolworth’s lunch counter—this one in downtown Nashville. Lewis’s 2012 re-election campaign slogan, “Getting Into Good Trouble Since 1960” is a reference to the more than forty arrests he has faced during his career, beginning with the sit-ins.

Photo courtesy of John Lewis for Congress.

In 1961, Lewis joined the Freedom Ride from Washington DC to New Orleans to test desegregation in interstate travel. Several Freedom Riders signed their wills before leaving, but the twenty-one-year-old Lewis, a newly minted college graduate, had nothing to bestow. When one of the two buses was firebombed near Anniston, Alabama, several riders were injured. (Lewis was not on board; he had left for a job interview in Philadelphia with a Quaker service organization and planned to re-join his fellow demonstrators in Birmingham.)

As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis epitomized the organization’s youthful nonconformity during the March on Washington by attempting to speak against the civil rights bill pending in Congress. Most activists praised the bill—it became the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and among other things desegregated the nation’s restaurants. Lewis, however, had spent three years at the vanguard of direct action campaigns and characterized the bill as “too little and too late.” He agreed to change his speech at the urging of older activists, but this incident exemplified the generational divide that marked the civil rights movement.

Lewis has been a U.S. congressman from Georgia's 5th district since 1987.

Learn more about John Lewis and the Nashville Student Movement by reading Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.