John Lewis’ ‘listening ear’ was a gift

Published 8:05 am Saturday, July 25, 2020

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While still a young man, John Lewis became a nationally recognized leader. By 1963, he was dubbed one of the Big Six leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. At the age of 23, he was an architect of and a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in August 1963.

In the summer of 1963, I was working as a pantry girl at Yellowstone National Park. On the night of June 10, all employees at Canyon Village were called together to pray for the people from Alabama who were supporting Gov. George Wallace in his attempts to block the integration of public schools.

In August of that same year, John Lewis from Pike County, Alabama, spoke at the March on Washington. Both of us were from rural South Alabama and had grown up only a few miles apart. I was making salad trays and he was making history.

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I’m not sure when I first met the Congressman from Georgia. But my memory is clear on the day he received his library card from the Troy Public Library, the card that had been denied him as a youngster.

As we waited for the presentation, Congressman Lewis sat and talked about books and libraries. He talked about the Carnegie Libraries and the positive impact they had on people of all ages. I told him about walking to the Carnegie Library in Eufaula during the summers when I visited my aunt and going home with a wagonload of books. He gave me a copy of his book, “Walking with the Wind” and signed it with “Thanks for all you do.”

Congressman Lewis visited Pike County from time to time and he was always willing to share a few words and lend a listening ear.

The last time I had an opportunity to deter him was at Julia’s Restaurant.

Someone called The Messenger to say that Congressman John Lewis was having lunch at Julia’s. I didn’t want to disturb him but I went. I told the young man with him that, if the congressman had a few minutes after he finished lunch, I would appreciate speaking with him. But I wasn’t in a hurry.

I busied my time with a bowl of banana pudding at a corner table.

After a time, the young man came over and said Congressman would be over but he was on a tight schedule and only had a few minutes.

I asked a couple of questions of the Congressman and, for some reason, we began talking and laughing about growing up in rural Pike County – kicking cans and catching minnows and such.

The young man came and said it was time to go.

The next time, he came, he asked me to end the interview. Congressman Lewis said, “This is not an interview. We are talking.” And, we kept talking.

A regret is that I didn’t jot down our conversation that day. It was not anything of importance, just memories of yesterday.

But, what I remember is the willingness of a man who has done many great things to sit and talk about marbles with one who has not.

Perhaps, Congressman John Lewis’ great success included his willingness to communicate with those around him and to have a listening ear even when nothing of great importance was being said.