Arrested, jailed and beaten for challenging Jim Crow laws, Lewis became a national figure in his early 20s.
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – It was a dark winter night in Troy, Alabama, when Bernard Lafayette said goodbye to John Lewis for what he feared might be the last time.
The two Black men, college roommates and friends at the American Baptist Theological Seminary, wanted to try to integrate the interstate bus system during their Christmas holiday in 1960. Despite some minor trouble in Nashville, where they boarded a segregated bus from an integrated bus station, they were able to make it to Troy, Lewis’s hometown and final destination.
As Lewis stepped off the bus at a shuttered service station, the town’s bus stop, Lafayette stayed on the vehicle to make it to his hometown in Florida. After hours of camaraderie, sitting in the front seat shoulder-to-shoulder, both faced the coming hours alone.
“It was dark, the lights were out,” Lafayette remembered Saturday. “He got off and was waiting for his ride there. I was worried about him. I didn’t know if I would see him again. When I said goodbye, there was some finality there”
But it wasn’t goodbye forever. The two survived the trip and each would go on to shape the 1960s civil rights movement, turning late-night dormitory philosophy conversations into social justice leadership for decades to come.
On Friday night, Lewis, a U.S. congressman and civil rights icon, died following a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Lafayette was able to speak with his lifelong friend days before his passing, though he didn’t realize it would be for the last time.
“A week before he passed, he wanted to talk to me,” Lafayette said. “I realized he was ill and was going through these struggles with his health. When it was over with, I found out he just wanted to hear my voice. We didn’t have a long conversation, it was only about his health and how he was doing. I didn’t expect this to happen. I didn’t expect him to leave us this soon.”
Another friend and enduring civil rights leader, C.T. Vivian, died hours before Lewis on Friday, heartbreaking losses for those who knew and loved the men.
“To be honest, I’m still struggling with it,” Lafayette said from his Tuskegee home on Saturday afternoon. “To be honest, it’s an emotional time.”
Lewis’ death has triggered an outpouring of public grief, as tens of thousands across the country mourn a gifted leader who championed a life of “good trouble,” a nonviolent but forceful activism that did not shy away from civil disobedience to change hearts and minds.
“The world feels different without him in it,” said Dorothy Walker, the director of Montgomery’s Freedom Rides Museum. “He had such a guiding presence, not just in our state as an Alabamians, but in our country and to a lot of people across the world. To carry on this work without him creates a void, but it also renews in us a commitment to the sense of urgency he felt in his life for this work.”
Lafayette remembers Lewis’ preternatural leadership qualities welling up from an early age.
“He had a tremendous appeal to people. He didn’t go out of his way to do that,” Lafayette said. “He was quiet, in terms of his spokesmanship, but people had confidence that he had a sincerity. There was no arrogance on his part. He never put anybody else down. He had respect. People had confidence in him in terms of his leadership. That’s the thing that made the difference.”
Lafayette credits Lewis for starting him down his own activism path. While roommates in Nashville, Lewis began pressing Lafayette to attend nonviolence activism workshops with him.
On Saturday, Lafayette chuckled while recalling how disinterested he was at the time, as he juggled full-time seminary work with a new job as an on-campus librarian.
“I didn’t have time for any more workshops!” Lafayette said.
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But Lewis kept pressing. He knew Lafayette had a heart and a mind for the civil rights work, as the two young men burned through midnight hours discussing philosophy and ideals. “This is what we talk about in the dormitory at night,” he told Lafayette.
“All night long, we would talk about segregation and racism. John convinced me to go to these workshops, and I got stuck,” Lafayette said with a chuckle. “That was it. That was the beginning of the journey for me.”
Months after their goodbye at the Troy service station, the Freedom Rides would begin in earnest. Integrated groups of Black and white activists planned to travel interstate bus routes through the Deep South, where states regularly and openly defied federal law that found segregated bus systems unconstitutional.
“The plan was to stop in different cities along the way, to meet local movements and inspire people. The irony is that you could ride all the way from Virginia on a segregated bus and when you got to Nashville, you got out at an integrated bus station. Then you had to get on a segregated bus all the way to Montgomery, which ironically had already integrated its local bus system. That’s why it was important to get these other local communities to start implementing the change, because if people don’t implement the change, the change doesn’t take place.”
Lewis was accepted into the initial Freedom Riders. But Lafayette was under 21, younger than his friend by just a few months, and needed parental permission to join. His parents, fearful for his life, refused to sign off. Still Lafayette, who had already worked with Lewis at the Nashville sit-ins to integrate lunch counters, was undeterred and continued training in nonviolent activism.
When violent mobs in Anniston and Birmingham suspended the original Freedom Rider route, Nashville’s college students began fielding groups to travel as replacements.
“During our training, we became aware of the possible physical injuries that we would get. We made out our wills. Prior to our going, the buses burned in Anniston, Alabama. The people who set it on fire held the doors close. They expected to kill people,” Lafayette said. “We knew the possibility. We were prepared for it. We felt that we had to endure whatever confronted us to show that nonviolence would work. We also knew that whatever happened to us, we had a backup group, because we had people being trained in Nashville to take our places in case we wouldn’t make it.”
Lafayette said he and Lewis led two groups from Birmingham to Montgomery on May 20, 1961. Though they were given federal supervision as they left Birmingham, Lafayette said it fell away as they entered Montgomery to suspiciously quiet streets. At the Greyhound Bus Station, a racist mob descended on the group and accompanying press.
“A mob came out of the bus station doors and started beating up the media, the press. Smashing the cameras. We didn’t know what to do. We knew the mob would come to us next, the only reason they were beating up the media is they didn’t want this recorded,” Lafayette recalled. “There was one cab there. We tried to get the girls into the cab, to at least get somebody saved.The cab driver refused to drive the cab because there were two white girls among us. He said it was against the local law in Montgomery, for a black cab driver to drive white women.”
“We said OK, we’ll just join hands and sing ‘We will overcome.’ And the mob came after us.”
Newspaper reports from the melee report “white men, cheered by women, seemed to work with precision” in beating the activists until bloody and unconscious. The Alabama Journal newspaper reported one white woman held up a small child to allow him to hit a Black activist in the face.
“Five or six would concentrate on one person, holding him down while others kicked and beat him,” the newspaper reported. Law enforcement failed to initially respond to the mob violence, later claiming nobody had called to report it, despite it spilling into the streets in downtown Montgomery.
Lewis was knocked unconscious when a member of the mob swung a wooden Coca-Cola crate at his head. Soon after, a local attorney general would hand over an injunction to a “bloodied” Lewis barring the group from remaining in Alabama.
“The fact that we would be injured or even face death was not a deterrent,” Lafayette said. “We understood that you had to make a personal commitment. Those of us who started to go on the Freedom Rides thought it was a worthwhile cause to give our lives to.”
The rides inspired renewed civil right activism and led to the desegregation of interstate transportation in 1961.
On Saturday morning, someone laid a small bouquet of flowers on the South Court Street pavement in front of the former Greyhound Bus Station. It now stands as the Freedom Rides Museum, where the pictures of Lewis and Lafayette, among many others, are commemorated on the very spot their blood was once spilled.
Dorothy Walker, the site director of the museum, worked in blistering July sunlight on Saturday afternoon to set up a wreath, ringed in mourning black, to honor Lewis and Vivian.
“I had the dual emotions of a heavy heart, complete sadness, but also incredibly inspired to have had the opportunity to know who he was, to know of his work, to understand his legacy,” Walker said of Lewis’s passing.
“It’s critical for people to understand the commitment, the sacrifice, the courage it must have taken, and the length of time people committed themselves. Congressman Lewis and other Freedom Riders, a lot of them were so young. The ones that were attacked here were 18- to 22-years-old. To meet hatred and violence with such commitment and sacrifice, they were willing to risk their lives not even known if that would change anything. They just knew it needed to be addressed, it needed to be confronted, and the only way they knew had was to sacrifice themselves in a peaceful, loving way.”
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