Rep. John Lewis, (D), GA-5
ATLANTA -- Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta returned home from Washington Thursday night after finding out he's one of 15 people named to receive the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom; and he told 11Alive News he will accept the honor with gratitude, but not just for himself.
Lewis stepped off of the escalator into the terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and tried to get to the baggage carousel -- he was picking up his own luggage as he usually does -- but he couldn't get to it right away.
Every few feet, someone in the crowded baggage claim area would stop him, wanting to shake his hand, take a photo with him, speak with him. Lewis, seemingly having all the time in the world for each person who approached him, smiled, listened intently to everything each person wanted to say, engaged them in conversation, shook their hands, posed for photos.
Lewis told 11Alive News that President Barack Obama telephoned him in Washington on Tuesday to tell him he would be receiving the Medal of Freedom, and the president went on at length explaining why.
"And he kept talking, and I said, 'Mr. President, you need to stop. If you keep talking, I'm going to cry.' He said, 'Just go ahead and cry.' And I was deeply moved," Lewis said.
Lewis tuned out the noise of the busy airport and opened up about how this recognition makes him think of all the people who fought with him so long ago in their non-violent war for civil rights -- at least THEY were non-violent, the reaction to them often was not.
"We had so much violence. We had set-backs, we had disappointments," he said. "But I never gave up. I never gave in. I never became bitter. Never became hostile. I kept the faith."
Lewis nearly lost his life in Selma, AL in 1965 -- beaten unconscious by law officers during a march for voting rights, a confrontation that became known as "Bloody Sunday." News film, news photos, and news accounts of the fire hose sprays, attack dogs, tear gas and batons that were unleashed on the unarmed marchers helped spur Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Lewis is the son of Alabama sharecroppers. As a teenager in the 1950s, he would listen to the radio about the early stirrings of the modern civil rights movement; he found himself drawn to it, as if it were a calling, when he heard about Rosa Parks, the Montgomery bus boycott, and a dynamic, eloquent, Atlanta-born preacher in his 20s helping lead the boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Lewis was an eager organizer and volunteer of lunch counter sit-ins, "freedom rides" to desegregate the interstate bus system, and a participant of marches and protests across the South in the campaign to end racial segregation.
He is the last surviving speaker from the massive, 1963 March on Washington, the event that culminated at the Lincoln Memorial with Dr. King's iconic "I Have A Dream" speech. The President of Atlanta's Morehouse College, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, gave the Benediction.
"We lost unbelievable people," Lewis said. "This is not just a tribute to me. I will be accepting it not just for myself, but on behalf of many, many others."
The ceremony, at the White House, will be in February.
In 2009, President Obama awarded the Medal of Freedom to the Reverend Dr. Joseph Lowery of Atlanta and 15 others. Other Georgia recipients over the years have been Martin Luther King, Jr., Hank Aaron, President Jimmy Carter, and Rosalyn Carter.
Excerpts from the Thursday night interview with Rep. John Lewis, (D), Ga-5th District, about being selected to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom:
Well, the President called me on Tuesday and he told me that he wanted to name me as one of the [Medal of Freedom] awardees. And he kept talking to me about what I'd done and my contribution to America and to society, not just for civil rights, but for peace. And he kept talking, and I said, 'Mr. President, you need to stop. If you keep talking I'm going to cry.' He said, 'Just go ahead and cry.' And I was deeply moved.
My mind just started reflecting back to the early days of the civil rights movement, people that I marched with, that I participated in the sit-ins with, the freedom rides, the March on Washington, the march from Selma to Montgomery, it all just came home to me.
More than 50 years I've been involved. I got involved as a teenager. I heard about Rosa Parks and Dr. King, and I was only 15 years old. In 1957, at the age of 17, I met Rosa Parks. And the next year, at the age of 18, in 1958, I met Martin Luther King, Jr. And I've been involved ever since.
I've always thought that things would work out. I've always been hopeful and optimistic that we would succeed. We had so much violence, we had set-backs, we had disappointments. But I never gave up. I never gave in. I never became bitter, I never became hostile. I kept the faith.
I think about many of the people that started with me, and others that made such an unbelievable contribution to our society during the height of the civil rights movement. We lost unbelievable people [including the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy; the murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi; the bombing of the church in Birmingham, among many examples].
This is not just a tribute to me and what I tried to do, but it is also a salute and a tribute to countless and nameless individuals, people who walked with me, that encouraged me and inspired me. So when I accept the award in February, I will be accepting it not just for myself, but on behalf of many, many others.
The complete list of recipients of the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom, as announced by the White House on Nov. 17, 2010, "presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.":
Pres. George H.W. Bush
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany
Congressman John Lewis
John H. Adams, co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council
Maya Angelou, poet, author, educator
Warren Buffett, Chairman and CEO, Berkshire Hathaway, philanthropist
Jasper Johns, artist
Gerda Weissmann Klein, Jewish Holocaust survivor, and author and public speaker
Dr. Tom Little (posthumous), optometrist murdered in Afghanistan during a humanitarian mission
Yo-Yo Ma, cellist
Sylvia Mendez, civil rights activist
Stan Musial, baseball Hall of Famer
Bill Russell, basketball Hall of Famer
Jean Kennedy Smith, activist for the disabled, former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland
John J. Sweeney, President Emeritus, AFL-CIO