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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
The Birth of Civil Rights. Aired 10:00-11p ET
Aired July 14, 2017 - 22:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
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[22:00:00] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, my idea now is that -- 10, 20, 30 years from now. He will be Donald Trump businessman. He will have an office in Trump Tower. And he'll have preserved the family legacy.
RANDI KAYE, HOST, CNN: That family legacy is obviously still being written. Now more than ever in both business and politics, it seems the first son, Donald Trump Jr. may be getting a much bigger chapter.
I'm Randi Kaye. Thanks for watching.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tonight on the Axe Files. A special conversation with Civil Rights icon, John Lewis.
REP. JOHN LEWIS (D), GEORGIA: To believe in something stand up for it speak up and speak out.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: From his march with Dr. King to the historic campaign with Robert Kennedy.
LEWIS: The assassin bullet he changed course of history. I think something died in all of us.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: John Lewis reflects on a lifetime of service and his message to Donald Trump.
LEWIS: This president should be leading us into the future. Not taking us backward.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Axe Files.
DAVID AXELROD, CNN HOST: Congressman John Lewis, so good to be with you. And especially here at center for, civil and human rights in Atlanta that museum of history so much of which you were right in the middle of. We look over here. And here is a mural of, photo of the march from Selma to Montgomery.
This happened a few days after you and hundreds of others were savagely beaten and gassed. Stomped on by horses. Trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Tell me how you feel we are doing today? How far down the road have we gotten from that bridge and are we still moving forward? LEWIS: David, I'm honored to be in your presence to be here with you.
I must tell you we have come a distance. We have made progress. But there are forces in America trying to slow us down. Or take us back. And when I think about what happened here in the America in south. Not just in Selma but all across the south. In Mississippi. In Georgia. In Tennessee. What people had to go through. To pass a so-called literacy test.
People were asked, the content of babbas and bubbles the number of jellybeans in a jar. There were African-America and lawyers and doctors. College professors, high school principals, housewives and farmers were told over and over again. That they failed the so-called literacy test. So we had to do what we did.
AXELROD: In terms of where we are today, you have -- you have been pretty harsh in your criticism of the President of the United States. You at times compared him to George Wallace. Who was the governor who presided over, those state troopers who attacked you on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. That's pretty tough criticism.
LEWIS: Well, you know -- I think that -- the person we have in Washington, today, is uncaring. Know very, very little about the struggle and the history of the Civil Rights movement. That black and white people died, they gave their lives. I think about Andrew Goodman, Mike Schwerner, James Chaney. I think about Viola Liuzzo, this white Housewife who came from Detroit who was shot, murdered, on the highway between Selma and Montgomery by the klan.
And countless individuals just gave everything they had.
AXELROD: But George Wallace, I mean, that's what about the president and his actions suggest to you that he is in that tradition, a tradition of a fame notorious, segregationist.
LEWIS: Well I think, this president, right now, is, asking, for the records. The voter registration records of people all over America. That is a form intimidation. That's a form of harassment.
AXELROD: This is his voter integrity commission. The vice president--
LEWIS: And some of the people that make up this commission. They have a history. A long history of making it harder and difficult for people to participate in the democratic process. We've come too far. This president should be leading us into the future. Not taking us backward.
AXELROD: So despite the fact that he got the requisite number of electoral volts. He often uses the word rigged.
[22:05:01] You think the election was rigged in his favor.
LEWIS: I would truly believe to this day the election was rigged in his favor.
AXELROD: You know, you had a march. Every year you commemorate the march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. A couple of years ago on the 50th anniversary one of the marchers was Jeff Sessions who is now Attorney General of the United States.
You were vehemently opposed to his nomination as attorney general. Why and how do you think he is doing now, seven months in?
LEWIS: I know his record. I know his history. He has a very long history of being on the other side and not on the right side. I don't think he is doing too well.
AXELROD: And there are things that the Justice Department relative to civil rights, relative to voting rights. I know they withdrew from voting rights suit in Texas. Are there things that the Justice Department is doing that concerns you.
LEWIS: I think the Department of Justice has a deaf ear and has withdrawn from the participation in the process of looking out for the people. Not moving people forward and standing still. During the administration of President Barack Obama, we had a caring, and active Department of Justice.
AXELROD: And you mention Barack Obama. He was another marcher at that 50th anniversary. You locked arms with him. The first African-America president. First of all, what did that mean to you? What did his election mean to you?
LEWIS: Well, the day of the evening when he was elected, I cried. And some reporters asked me if I was crying so much. I said it was tears of happiness. Tears of joy. And, I said, people are crying all over America . People are crying in other parts of the world. And those that are not with us today, are crying.
And they're saying what are you going to do when he is inaugurated? If I have any tears left, I am going to cry some more. And that's exactly what high did. I cried for Dr. King, for Robert Kennedy and President Kennedy. For the three civil rights workers. For those hundreds and thousands of people that went to jail who never ever lived to cast a vote. I cried for them. I cried for my great grandparents and for my own mother and my own father.
AXELROD: Yet at the end of the eight years, you know, polls were taken and people said they thought race relations were getting worse in the country, why is that?
LEWIS: I don't understand why people would say that, I hear that. I think the election and the presidency of President Barack Obama, injected something very meaningful into the very vein of our country. Gave people hope. Someone just said to me a few days ago. He said, I wish he could have been elect ford a third term.
AXELROD: You know, you speak so movingly of your -- of your affection for him and for the meaning of his election. I know you struggled during the primary campaign in 2007, at first endorsing Hillary Clinton then ultimately, Barack Obama. Did you not believe that an African-America could get elected President of the United States? LEWIS: I thought it was possible. I became convinced that this one
man could get elected and become president of the United States. And I was very proud to join his team and campaign on his behalf.
AXELROD: You are a loyal guy. Was that if difficult thing to switch from one candidate to another?
LEWIS: Yes, it's hard. It was very difficult. It was hard. I had known the Clinton for many, many years. But I had to make a decision. I have what I call, an executive session with myself. And I said -- self. Self, listen.
AXELROD: Well that is an expeditious way to get to a conclusion having an executive session with yourself. Another guy who walked with you, arm in arm, in Selma a couple of years ago was President George W. Bush. You actually boycotted his inauguration as well.
And yet you came to work with him on a project that you've been involved in from the beginning which is to create an African-America museum of history in Washington in the Smithsonian Institute which is now a reality. How did that relationship develop? And could you see that happening with this president?
[22:09:55] LEWIS: Well, I got to know President George W. Bush. And he, I think he or might will be did or tried to do, during the height of those Civil Rights movement. I got to know his father. Matter of fact I gave him a book to read about the movement. And he sent me a note, and the son, George W. Bush, we see him from time to time. He would invite us to the White House. We would talk.
He embraced the building of African-American museum on the mall. And his wife did. And they became partners in having us get it there. So when the legislation was passed, it took me more than 15 years to get it through the Congress. But it was passed. He signed it into law. And during the open, he came and spoke.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
LEWIS: It was something becoming real for him and for his family.
AXELROD: Could you in today's environment have passed that legislation through Congress. Could you have gotten that museum?
LEWIS: I think today would have been almost impossible.
AXELROD: So how do we reclaim that? You're someone who has constantly spoken about reconciliation. It's been a big part of your -- of your commitment from the very, very beginning.
LEWIS: Well, we cannot--
AXELROD: How do you break that?
LEWIS: Well, we can never give up on the possibility of being reconciled. Bringing people together. Creating what, Dr. King and many of us called the beloved community. So we must do what we can to redeem people, redeem the soul of America. To understand that we are one people. We are one family. We all live in the same house. Not just American house, but the world house.
AXELROD: As you walk around this center, and you look at these photographs and you see some of the film clips. What's very, very clear is the role, the news media played in bringing your stories to the American public.
And really -- shocking the conscience of the American people. That was your intent I think in some of the actions that you staged. Could the Civil Rights movement have succeeded without that coverage, without journalism?
LEWIS: Without journalism.
AXELROD: And without television.
LEWIS: Without television, without brave and courageous cameraman and reporters, it was very, very dangerous, David. It was very dangerous. To be a reporter, to have a pencil and a pad and to be a photographer. When members of the klan, when people, they just didn't beat on us. They tried to destroy the record.
Whether it was in Atlanta, or in Mississippi in Alabama during the freedom rights. When we got off of that bus in Montgomery and in May 1961, they first beat the reporters. You saw all these men, mostly men, very few women reporters back then. Just bloody. And then they turn on us.
AXELROD: I think one of the most momentous events in the Civil Rights movement was when ABC cut into their screening of judgment in Nuremberg which was a major new film at the time. Ironically about Nazi war crimes to do 15 minutes of film, from bloody Sunday.
Chronicling the attack on you and the people you were marching with. That as much as anything, probably led to the expediting of the Voting Rights Act.
LEWIS: Well, when the American people saw that film footage they didn't like it. They're speaking up. They start marching all across America. And in matter of few days there was demonstration in more than 80 cities almost on every major college and university campus.
At the White House, at the Department of Justice. They were demanding that President Johnson act. That the Congress act. And because of the press and ask him over and over again, without the media, without the press the Civil Rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Coming up next, on the Axe Files.
LEWIS: Dr. King say after me, are you the boy from Troy? Are you John Lewis? I said, Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis.
[22:15:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
AXELROD: What is it about your childhood, when can you pinpoint the exact moment when you were struck by the inequities that you would end up spending your life fighting?
LEWIS: As a young child about, 7, 8 years old. We go downtown Troy to the theater, see a movie. All of us, light children had to go upstairs to the balcony. All of the local white children went downstairs to the first floor. I kept asking my mother, my father, my uncles and aunts, and grandparents, why. And they that's the way it is. Don't get in the way. Don't get in trouble.
But in 1955, 15 years old. I heard Rosa Parks. I heard Martin Luther King, Jr. I heard him on the radio. And '57, I met Rosa Parks. The next year, in '58, I met Martin Luther king, Jr. and I was inspired.
[22:20:07] AXELROD: Yes, I want to talk about that because you went off to Nashville to study for the ministry. And you became more and more involved in the social gospel, and social ministry. And you decided you were going to come back to Troy State in Alabama. You were going to integrate that college. And you wrote to Martin Luther King. And he wrote back. And how did that happen. And what did you, and he sent you a ticket to come and see him. A bus ticket in Montgomery.
LEWIS: You are right. He sent me round trip for Greyhound bus ticket and invited me to come to Montgomery to meet with him. At this time I'm 18 years old. I boarded a bus to travel from Troy to Montgomery. And a young lawyer, by the name of Fred Gray who was the lawyer for Rosa Parks. So Dr. King in the Montgomery movement met me at the Greyhound bus station and drove me to the First Baptist Church in downtown Montgomery.
A Pastor by the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, a colleague of Dr. King and a bus worker and ushered me in the pastor's study. I saw Dr. King and Reverend Ralph Abernathy standing behind a desk. And Dr. King said to me, are you the boy from Troy? Are you John Lewis? And I said, Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis. But he still called me, the boy from Troy.
And we had a wonderful discussion. He said if you want to attend Troy State now called Troy University. We will help you. But we may have to file a suit against the state of Alabama against Troy state. But you need to have a discussion with your mother and father.
The home could be bombed. Or burned. They could lose the land. And I went back. I had a discussion with my mother and father. I was so afraid that something could happen. So I continued to study in Nashville.
AXELROD: What about you, weren't you at all worried about what it would mean for you to try and integrate that college. I mean. There was, the history of that was pretty intimidating.
LEWIS: I felt strongly that somebody had to do something. I had been also inspired by the young people in Little Rock. The little Rock nine. And they just said to me, if people in Little Rock, Arkansas can stand up then I can do something. If people in Montgomery. Montgomery is 50 miles from where I grew up. I was deeply and once about that. So, I went back to Nashville.
AXELROD: And you did do something?
LEWIS: And I got involved. So I study the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolent. Studying the way of piece. The way of love. I wanted to look fresh of what people call sharp. Had very little money. So I went to the used men's store in downtown, Nashville. And I bought a suit. And a vest came with it.
So I paid $5 for the suit. My first arrest on February 27, 1960. Eighty-nine students, black and white, went to jail. Became the first mass arrest in the city of movement.
AXELROD: This didn't sit well with your folks right?
LEWIS: No, no, no. They thought I lost my mind. They thought I was out of it.
AXELROD: But you have written that you found it, a liberating moment. That this was a transitional moment, a transformational moment in your life. Why?
LEWIS: Just being arrested and taking off to jail. I didn't committed a crime. I violated customs and traditions. I feel liberated. I feel free.
AXELROD: And you became the first freedom writers, the first group organized and to break these barriers. And you had a dinner that you wrote about in your splendid biography in which you talked about that, the night before you left for the ride. And you said, "As we passed around the bright silver containers of food. Someone joked we should eat well and enjoy because this might be our last supper. Several in the group had actually written out wills in case they didn't come back from this trip. It was that serious. It was that real. As for me, just about all I owned, and was packed in my suitcase. There was no need for me to make out a will. I had nothing to leave anyone."
You were 21 years old you and you were contemplating death. As were obviously the other young people around you. Did you know at what that meant. Could you absorb, what you were about to go through.
[22:24:58] LEWIS: I studied the way of peace, the way of love, philosophy of nonviolence. I thought that we could, there was a possibility that we wouldn't return. But somebody, some group had to be willing to give it all.
AXELROD: You studied nonviolence and peace and love. But you weren't greeted with nonviolence, peace, and love. When you reached South Carolina you had a confrontation. What happened there? LEWIS: When we arrived in a little town called Rock Hill, South
Carolina about 30, 35 miles from Charlotte, North Carolina. My seat mate was a young white gentleman. The two of us tried to enter a so- called white waiting room we were attacked by members of the klan.
AXELROD: This is what you would do, right? You would -- you would--
LEWIS: But test the facilities.
AXELROD: Test the facilities in every stop.
LEWIS: Right. We would go to the waiting room. Go to the restroom. Go to the lunch counter. Go to the cafeteria. And people would from time to time attack you. Beat you. We were left lying in the pool of blood. The local police officials came up. They wanted to know whether we wanted to press charges. We said no. We believe in peace. We believe in a way of love.
And many years later, David. Many years later. To be exact a few days after President Obama was inaugurated, one of the guys that beat us came to my office in Washington. He was in his 70s with a son. In his 40's. He said, Mr. Lewis, I've been a member of the klan. I beat you and your seat mate. He said, I went to apologize. Will you forgive me?
His son started crying. He started crying. I said, I forgive you. I accept your apology. They hugged me. I hugged them back. And I saw this gentleman four other times. He went out. He moved out of the election. And I think in a sense he got religion. And I think a lot of people did.
AXELROD: So hearts can change.
LEWIS: Hearts can change.
LEWIS: And we shouldn't ever give up on anyone.
AXELROD: You went to Washington and you ultimately met with President Kennedy. But you were the youngest person included in that famous march on Washington. The event at the Lincoln Memorial which Martin Luther King made his dramatic speech. But your speech was quite controversial.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LEWIS: We must wake up America, wake up! So we cannot stop. And we will not and cannot be patient.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AXELROD: In fact, while the program was beginning. You as a 23-year- old, were standing behind the Lincoln statue with the leaders of the Civil Rights movement. Telling you that you had to change, change your speech. LEWIS: Well, I didn't like the idea of the speech that we had
prepared. To be forced to change the speech. Encouraged to change the speech. And I remember Asa Philip Randolp, the dean of black leadership saying, shall we come this far, can we stay together. Can you change this, change that?
And I remember Dr. King saying to me on one occasion. John that doesn't sound look you. And I couldn't say no to Asa Philip Randolph. I couldn't no to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And we made the changes.
AXELROD: It's interesting, you were this young guy, the 23-year-old in the group of elders. And you were really representing students who had a different orientation. Less patience than some of the others.
LEWIS: We were venting some of the frustration and the sense of discontent on the part so many people. To see so many people arrested and jailed and beaten. And seeing like Washington were looking the other way.
But on the day of the march, on the day of the march. The march was all over. President Kennedy invited us down to the White House. And he stood in the door of the Oval Office. Beaming like a proud father. And he kept saying, you did a good job, you did a good job. And when he got to Dr. Martin Luther king Jr. He said you did a good job and you had a dream.
AXELROD: The Mississippi freedom summer, you write in your book that you were inviting college students down from the north. Mostly white students. Not exclusively.
[22:30:04] And one of the reasons was that you felt and the leaders of the movement felt that if young white people were threatened in the way that you would have been threatened and others had been threatened that it would -- it would shock the nation. It would get more attention.
And even before the Mississippi freedom summer started which was an organizing campaign in Mississippi you lost three young men. Two were from the north white. What impact did that have on history?
LEWIS: Well, that was an unbelievable dark moment in the history for the struggle for Civil Rights. We wanted. We wanted some high and some way for the nation to see Mississippi, to see the south. So by bringing these young people to Mississippi to the heart of the Deep South you have educated and sensitize people. I think it had a turning point. We have moved the movement making step forward.
AXELROD: This scene across the Edmund Pettus Bridge this was the impetus for the Voting, the Voting Rights Acts. But your skull was cracked you were -- you were gassed. You nearly gave your life for this. At what point do you and others to say and you say there was this split in the Civil Rights movement, nonviolence has its limits. That violence invites defensive violence.
LEWIS: Well, I never through it all the 40 years arrests a period the beatings. I never ever gave up on the idea of being committed to the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence. You have to accept it as a way of life, as a way of living.
If you are going to create a beloved community, if we are going to say Asa Philip Randolph stated over and over again. Maybe our foremothers and our forefathers all came to this land in different ships but we all loaded in the same boat now.
And Dr. King put it another way. We got to learn to live together as brothers and sisters, if not we are going to perish as fools.
AXELROD: Coming up next on the Axe Files.
LEWIS: I never ever gave of on the idea of being committed to the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence.
[22:35:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
AXELROD: 1968 is the year that I remember as a young man growing up as one of the most disturbing momentous catastrophic years in history when all this violence began to it felt like it was overwhelming of the country.
You were right in the middle of a lot of the history. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in 1963. You were now working for Bobby Kennedy, the attorney general who came to your assistance when you were young organizer in the south. What drew you to Bobby Kennedy?
LEWIS: Well, I really admired him. I admired the energy and the sense of hope that we can do it. We could remake America. He inspired me.
AXELROD: You know what's striking about him as I recall and he was a hero of mine. He had an extraordinary ability to reach across class lines. To reach across racial lines that I really have not seen since.
What was it about him that that allowed him to go into poor white communities, poor black communities, working class ethnic white communities in the urban areas and come away with people feeling like he was their advocate.
ILEWIS: think we all we all saw something in him that was real. That he had this the ability, the capacity to identify with people. Whether black, white, Latino, Asian-American, Native American. It was it his whole being that he cared.
AXELROD: I think his brother's assassination had something to do with it?
LEWIS: I think it changed him. Made him a different person. It drove him to say to himself you know I will use my time to make things better.
AXELROD: It's interesting. You were surrounded by martyrs and the survivors of martyrs. And his brother -- in a sense was as well. Was that a -- because I remember very clearly the night on April 4th of 1968 when Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis. You were with Robert Kennedy in Indianapolis. You were organizing for him in the Indiana primary. I know the local authorities didn't want him to speak. They were
worried about violence there. They were worry about protecting his safety. But you urge him to come.
LEWIS: Well, I just felt that he had an obligation, not just an obligation but it was the right thing for him to do to come and identify with the people. I heard that Dr. King had been shot. But I didn't know that he had died. And it was Robert Kennedy that made the announcement.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
[22:40:03] ROBERT F. KENNEDY, FORMER UNITED STATES SENATOR: Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AXELROD: So when he made the announcement on that stage was the first time that you knew that Dr. King had died.
AXELROD: How did that -- how did that strike you as formative as Dr. King was in your life?
LEWIS: It was, it made me very sad. I cried. A lot of us in the audience. Black and white. We cried. It was Bobby Kennedy who suggested that I with one of his staffers return to Atlanta to help in the preparation for the funeral.
AXELROD: He cried as well?
LEWIS: He cried, yes. We went back to his hotel room. And we met and we talked. And I remember when he came to Atlanta for the funeral that it was responsibility the night before to escort him and other members of the Kennedy family to the Ebenezer Baptist Church to carry Dr. King's body.
And Bobby Kennedy the day of the funeral was one of the few white politicians that walked all the way through the streets of Atlanta from that church to the Morehouse College Campus with hundreds and thousands of people. Without any one -- just saying a word. Just silence.
AXELROD: A few months later you were with him in Los Angeles and you were organizing the African-American community of Los Angeles to all the all-important California primary with Cesar Chavez who was working the Hispanic precincts.
LEWIS: Yes. I remember so well.
AXELROD: A great labor organizer.
LEWIS: Well we team up from time to time. We went into some of the wealthy white neighborhood in Los Angeles trying to convince people to vote for Bobby rather than for Humphrey or McCarthy. And somehow he knew that he was going to carry the State of California. And he did.
AXELROD: You were with him right before he went out to make his victory speech that night. What did he say to you?
LEWIS: Well, he sort of joke with me. And he said, John, you let me down today. More Mexican-Americans turned out to vote than Negros. He said I am going down to speak and you wait here. And I waited in his suite with his sister Jean Kennedy Smith. And Jack Newfield of the village voice. And Teddy White and several -- Charles Evers, Medgar Evers' brother.
AXELROD: Medgar Evers slain NAACP leader from Mississippi.
LEWIS: Right. And it was a sad evening.
AXELROD: You know, assassin's bullet can change the course of history. Did the assassin's bullet that killed Robert Kennedy change the course of history?
LEWIS: I truly believe that the assassin bullet had changed the course of history. I think something died in all of us. Something died in America. It was more than the death of a political leader. But a sad spirit died. And those of us who lived through that period it is very hard very difficult to recover from it from what happened.
We would have ended the war in Vietnam much earlier I think. And I believe I truly believe that Robert Kennedy would have been elected president of the United States of America. And the young people in this country young people around the world would be so different. Would have been another unbelievable generation of young leaders immersion.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Coming up next on the Axe Files.
LEWIS: Someone would come up and spit on you. Or hot water, hot coffee, hot chocolate on you. You would have gotten arrested and take into jail.
[22:45:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
AXELROD: So this room encompasses a lot of those early battles that you fought to kind of define you're like here is a replica of a freedom ride bus. Like the ones that you rode.
I think your mug shot is somewhere here.
How many times were you arrested?
LEWIS: During the 60's I was arrested 40 times. The sit-ins, the freedom rides standing in the theaters.
AXELROD: One of the things about the freedom ride is that some of the elders of the Civil Rights movement did not want you to continue. They wanted you to the students to stop. How did that get resolved?
LEWIS: Well we made a decision that we couldn't stop. We couldn't let the opposition have a victory. We were determined to see that the bus stations and buses and waiting rooms desegregated all across the south.
AXELROD: How many months did take it for you to prevail?
LEWIS: It took from May 1961 and November 1st 1961.
AXELROD: How did you feel when the bus companies gave in when the local communities gave in?
LEWIS: It was a great feeling. It was a great victory for the movement. And the movement need victories. Dr. King was set from time to time give us some victories. You keep people together. You keep building.
AXELROD: Your career as an organizer and protester and advocate Civil Rights advocate began at the lunch counters in Nashville as the -- we discussed. This is a replica of one of those lunch counters. And -- through those ear phones is a depiction of the scene that you faced as you sat there.
[22:50:03] I want to ask you to sit down. Put those headphones on. And then let's talk when you are when you're done.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You get up boy, I'm going to kill you right for everybody. I'm going to take this fork I'm going to jam it right into your neck if you don't leave now. Get out. Get up.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get up. Get up.
AXELROD: How painful is it to hear those scenes?
LEWIS: Surreal. It is real.
AXELROD: Do you have those experiences still vivid in your memory 57 years later?
LEWIS: Yes. Yes.
AXELROD: Just listening to that it is -- it's really hard to fathom how one sits there and experiences not just the violence but the degradation.
LEWIS: Yes. But people had the ability to do it day in and day out to sit and take it and just look straight ahead. Someone would come up and spit on you, pour out hot water, hot coffee, hot chocolate on you. Pull you out of the stool and you'd get arrested and taken to jail.
AXELROD: It takes a lot of both discipline and dignity to be able do that. It led to another victory.
LEWIS: Yes, yes.
AXELROD: You were able in a matter of months to desegregate the lunch counters of Nashville.
LEWIS: Yes. Nashville because the first major city in the south to desegregate most of us in the lunch counters in the restaurant, because people had the capacity to sit on those stools.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Coming up next on the Axe Files.
AXELROD: You were reconciled with dying.
LEWIS: Yes. You prepare for it.
[22:55:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
AXELROD: This is an extraordinary room. This is a mural of laws from the '60s when you were putting yourself on the line all over this country and it really speaks to what the sacrifices that you and others made produced in terms of progress. Over here are the history makers.
LEWIS: Medgar Evers, NAACP leader served in the military.
AXELROD: Shot in front of his family in his driveway.
LEWIS: He was a brave and courageous man. It was very dangerous to be a NAACP leader. And this is young Emmett Till, I remember.
AXELROD: You were about his age.
LEWIS: Nineteen fifty-five.
AXELROD: He was accused of whistling at a white woman and was taken and was savagely beaten.
LEWIS: I kept thinking to myself this could happen to any of my cousins. So many people all across America identify with what happened to this young man. I come back to this place sometime you come to observe to realize the commitment that people made.
AXELROD: I'm told there's a new exhibit.
LEWIS: I have not seen this.
AXELROD: It covers that bus in Anniston, Alabama that you were supposed to be on and just by a chance you took a break from the freedom ride.
AXELROD: This bus was firebombed. People who attacked this bus threw in a Molotov cocktail and try to keep the door closed so no one could get out. Did you feel guilty about not having been on the bus?
LEWIS: Well, I felt like I should have been there. But I try to make up for it.
AXELROD: You were reconciled with dying that this was a real possibility?
LEWIS: Yes. You prepare for it. There comes a time when you have to stand up for something and speak up. In the process you may get hurt. You may lose your life. It's real. It's my first time seeing this.
AXELROD: Did you feel responsible for the group?
LEWIS: Yes. The group that continue I felt very much responsible for them because I was the spokesperson, because we were on our way to New Orleans and we never really made it to New Orleans.
AXELROD: Right. You did change the course of history.
LEWIS: Well, we broke down those signs as there were white waiting, colored waiting, white men, colored men, white woman, and colored woman. They're gone. And I tell young people today the only place you'll see those signs today would be in a book in a museum or in a video. They're gone and our country's a much better place.
AXELROD: Thank you.
LEWIS: Thank you. Thank you.
[23:00:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)