When he was a child growing up outside Montgomery, Ala., John Lewis asked his elders about the WHITE ONLY and COLORED ONLY signs that seemed to govern so much of their lives.
“I would ask why,” he said. The nonanswer was: “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t make trouble.”
It was totally unsatisfactory and certainly didn’t square with Lewis’ questing, questioning spirit. So he did just the opposite, he said.
“I got in good trouble. I got in necessary trouble,” Lewis, now a longtime Democratic Congressman from Georgia, told a roomful of admirers at Clark College on Saturday morning.
Lewis, a personal friend and colleague of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights era, was the unannounced, special guest star at the fourth annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast held at college. The sold-out event, which drew 230 people, was masterminded by community activist Deena Pierott.
Pierott confessed that what got Lewis to build a Vancouver visit into an already-planned trip to Portland and Powell’s Books, where he made a lunchtime appearance to publicize a series of graphic novels about his life, wasn’t her own personal pull. It was the involvement in her breakfast of the local chapter of service fraternity Phi Beta Sigma. Lewis is a member.
Lewis, 73, started the day with a brief private meeting with his much younger fraternity brothers. After the breakfast began, he took the podium to talk about his friendship with Martin Luther King.
He first heard King’s voice on the radio when he was 15 years old, he said. By age 18 he had met both King and Rosa Parks, the civil rights activist who drew attention to segregation in the South by refusing to relinquish her seat on a bus to a white passenger.
Lewis may be in his 70s, but his voice was fiery as he recalled putting his body on the line during civil rights marches, demonstrations and sit-ins. He was 20 years old on Feb. 27, 1960, when he was arrested for the first time of many, for sitting at a Woolworth’s lunch counter that was posted WHITE ONLY.
Far from being devastated by winding up behind bars, he said, “I felt like I’d crossed over. I felt freed. I felt liberated.”
Of Dr. King, he said: “He was my friend, my colleague, my hero, my brother. And I miss him every single day.”
King was murdered at age 39 in April 1968. By then he was an icon of the struggle for civil rights and the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
“If someone had told me that one day I would live to see an African-American as President of the United States, I would have said, ‘You crazy?’ ” Lewis said. “If it hadn’t been for Martin Luther King, and Gandhi, there would be no Barack Obama as President of the United States of America.”
Lewis concluded by saying that celebration is nice, but what King really would have wanted is for people to keep “pushing and pulling to make our country and our world a better place.”
Then he was off to Powell’s to publicize “March,” a trilogy of graphic novels that tell the story of Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil rights. Lewis had a hand in many of the crucial civil rights events of the 1960s. He helped plan the 1963 March on Washington, where King made his classic “I Have a Dream” speech, as well as the 1964 “Freedom Summer” that sent college students from around the nation into the Deep South to try to register blacks to vote. Lewis faced tear gas and beatings by police; his skull was fractured in one such beating as he led a march attempting to cross a bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965. That event became infamous as “Bloody Sunday,” and it is considered a turning point in the civil rights movement, galvanizing public reaction against the brutality and building support for passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Lewis was elected to represent Georgia’s 5th congressional district in 1986, and has been re-elected ever since.
The keynote speaker at the breakfast was Dr. Alisha Moreland-Capuia, an Oregon native and psychiatrist at Oregon Health & Science University who focuses on addiction and on healing violent trauma — such as stab and gunshot wounds — among young African-Americans. She is the creator of a national violence prevention program called Healing Hurt People.
Moreland-Capuia described a fourth-grade class that dived into The World Peace Game, a complex model of the real world with all its interlocking problems and conflicts. The children — who were randomly assigned to powerful, rich nations or to poor, desperate ones — quickly deduced that loss hurts everybody, no matter their individual interests, Moreland-Capuia said. They figured out how to attack small problems as a way of solving larger ones, and they demonstrated “spontaneous compassion” for the neediest among them, she said.
Also honored at the breakfast was Sirius Bonner, special adviser at Clark College on equity and diversity and a former diversity officer at both Reed College and Portland State University. Mayor Tim Leavitt presented Bonner with a 2014 Compass Award for her work.