The Community Advocates program is a part of the African American Trailblazers of Carroll County series. This segment features interviews with John H. Lewis Jr., Dr. Darcel Harris, and Jean B. Lewis. Be sure to catch the complete series to hear all of the “Trailblazers” tell their stories.
INTERVIEWER: Um, tell us a little bit about your family as you’re growing up as a young child. What kind of routines did you have? Special day?
JOHN LEWIS: Well when I was– first of all I was born into a family of 10 children, and I was number three. From the top down out of the 10. My mother and father were, uh, hard working in individuals. My mother had, uh, uh, seventh-grade education. My father have a fourth-grade education.
Course as you all know back in those days most African-Americans of that time didn’t really feel the need to further their education, nor was it, uh, readily at their disposable, disposal to, uh, have, uh, more advanced education. They felt that once you [INAUDIBLE] two teachers, or something of that nature. That was about the only door for professional. But even if they could have gone further education their families, and then the family out– the family that we were in, they couldn’t afford it. So she had a seventh-grade education, and he had a fourth-grade education.
But you know, uh, with that amount of education, uh, I can remember they were both very intelligent people. So apparently there’s some validity in the fact that, uh, experience is a good teacher, because, uh, I think common sense was probably the avenue toward their, uh, their achieving. So, they, they had good common sense. And they were well grounded. And they worked very hard, very hard.
My father was a, um, sort of an all-around individual. He was a mason by trade. He worked on a farm. He did mechanical work. And things in this nature. I, uh, admired my father because, uh, he, he was very good at making a way out of no way. And I recall one incident we were doing something to the house, and he, uh, he needed a square. Well, (LAUGH)
I’m a little more fortunate than he, because if you go up and look at my tool shed, I probably had 10 squares. (LAUGHS). And, uh, so, you know, but it’s through him that I, that I have what I have. And we didn’t have– he didn’t have a square, and he had a ruler. And he took this ruler, and measured all three pieces of lumber and tacked them together, and he made a square. A most efficient square. And he was this type of person we raised as a youngsters.
Oh, and my mother worked, uh, as a maid. She worked most of our life at the, um, boys’ home in Eldersburg known as Strawbridge, which was a home for wayward boys. She worked most of her, uh, adult life there. And, uh, she, I recall, she used to walk over the hill, which was probably a mile and a half to two miles– probably I two miles– out across the field to work every day. And she walked rain, shine, or snow. Every day she plowed through it. She didn’t miss a beat.
And, uh, anyway they were both extremely active when it came to work. Uh, things like, uh, segregation and the lack of education just did not afford them the opportunity of becoming rich people. So we were, we actually lived in, uh, in, next door to poverty really. We were, we were brought up in the way post-depression era, and the depression was a time when, uh, or even the depression– the post depression era was a time when you could not go, you didn’t have the freedom to go to the store and run in and pick up a loaf of bread like you do now.
Or, you didn’t have the freedom to run out and, uh, oh, I’m going to take the car over to the shop and get four new tires stuck on it.
JOHN LEWIS: You didn’t have these freedoms. You could only buy what the government allowed you to buy. And the government, uh, controlled this by issuing you, what we term now is, uh, food stamps. They had another name for them then, but it was basically food stamps. It was rationing stamps–
JOHN LEWIS: –they called it. And, uh, you received so many stamps according to the size of your family. And in that category we sort of got over on a lot of other people, because we had the larger family. But then you’re feeding more people.
JOHN LEWIS: You’re taking care of more people. And as I recall, uh, rationing was everything from bread, and milk, and bologna, and sausage, right on down to tires, and things on automobile. Uh, I remember back then we, you had, we could not go out because of wartime, and because of rationing. We uh, you couldn’t go out and buy a brand new tires, you bought retreads, because all of the rubber and stuff was being used for the military overseas.
I can also remember I started to work really when I was eight years old. Uh, we used to, uh, go out into the fields for Mr. [INAUDIBLE] who was one of the big farmers in uh, in Johnsville, and we would pull watercress out of the cornfields, because cult-tractor cultivating then was not a thing to be had in this part of the country. They used horses. So we would, uh, he would hire probably about 10 or 15 kids, and put us in rows. And we would walk the rows and pull watercress and throw them in piles. And then the wagon would come along and pick them up, and they would dispose of them.
I also remember working, eh, there was a weed that used to grow. Probably about 3, 3 1/2 feet high. And on that weed there was a puff. And I don’t see it much anymore these days, but there was a little puff cone. This puff cone held a silk-like material in it. And we used to gather up, collect these puff cones, and you sold them, because they used the silk to make parachutes.
JOHN LEWIS: We also collected tin cans. That was all for the war effort, and stuff like that. But basically we grew up, uh, uh, uh, pretty much, uh, an impoverished family.
INTERVIEWER: Now what were Sundays like at your house?
JOHN LEWIS: Sundays like, Sundays were like, uh, you got dressed in what you could afford to get dressed in. Uh, you know, you didn’t run to the closet and take all to pull, to figure out what suit you were going to wear. You had that one suit, and that one pair of shoes, and you had to put a little spit on them to make them look good, or maybe a little oil. You know. And they might have a, uh, a hole in the bottom with some cardboard on them, but, uh you, uh, put on– that was your Sunday best.
And you went to church on Sunday mornings. And church was, uh, was the highlight at that time, it was a good time. You got to see people from the community, and then you got to meet people who would come in from other places to the church. So church was, uh, uh, a, uh, good time. It was a learning time, because you went to Sunday school, and that’s where you kind of learned about different things in different parts of the world, in various parts of the Bible, or biblical settings. So, and being, uh, a poor kid from the country who very seldom, very seldom got outside of the Johnsville area.
JOHN LEWIS: Very seldom. Uh, these were all new things. So you can appreciate the fact that when, uh, the statement, when somebody says books will take you on a journey, because that’s what it did for us. Books took us on a journey. We would travel, uh, my grandmother on my mother’s side, lived on in Baltimore on Stricker Street. And probably about every other month we would pack in the back in the car, my dad at the time as I can remember had, uh, one of the cars that he had was a 1929 Buick. And it had a rumble seat on the back of it. Heater it didn’t work.
And we put an old kerosene heater in the thing to keep warm. And we trekked off to Baltimore to my, uh, grandmother’s house. And, uh, just for Marcus’ benefit, it took us– we lived was 26 miles from our house to grandmother’s house. And it would take us almost an hour to get there. When you can jump in the car now and run 50 miles in little less than 30 about 40 minutes.
JOHN LEWIS:And, so, uh, we would all go down to my grandmother’s house. And I think my grandmother kind of, I don’t think she liked to see my father come with that whole bunch of kids. Because it, it meant she had to feed all of us, which most of the time she didn’t. And, uh, we did that up until I was about 10, 11 years old.
And I like my father, I, uh, I was, I became very good with my hands, fixing things and repairing and things. And I think that’s when my grandmother and I kind of parted ways, because when I would go down there, when I got there she pretty much had a list of all. Come on, Junior, you can fix this. Oh Junior is good with his hands. Come on Junior, come in here now. And, uh, then you might get a little half a sandwich, you know. And I thinking, wait a minute, come all the way down here, been here a couple hours, I’ve done all this work, and I’m going to get a half a sandwich?
When I got about 10, 9, 10, 11 years old, somewhere and I started telling my parents, it’s OK. I’ll stay home. (LAUGHS) I’m not going down there. But, uh, that too was a learning experience, because we got to go in the city.
Uh, Dorsey Whittaker, uh bless his heart, had, uh, had, uh, 1941. Buick, and on a Saturday nights he used to take us to Baltimore to the movie on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Royal Theatre, the Met Theatre, and the like. And every once in awhile, we would go– he’d take us to Baltimore to see somebody like James Brown, and Red Fox, or somebody like this.
INTERVIEWER: And what about the movie theaters here?
JOHN LEWIS: Now to movie theaters here, because we couldn’t go. We could not go unless you went to the State Theater here, you went to the balcony. And Sykesville has a little movie theater. And you couldn’t go there unless you went to the balcony. But you see, I have a cousin– I had a cousin, well she’s deceased now, and her father was white, a white man from [INAUDIBLE]. And, uh, she was older than we were. And she was a, not, I don’t want to say fat, but she was stocky.
And a lot of times we would, uh, I don’t know how you say, just out of devilment, we would, uh, she we would go to the movie theater down in Sykesville. And she’d put on this red, big fur coat, and this red, big, broad-rimmed hat, and have these bags. And we’d come along with these bags. And they’d say, you can’t sit down here. And she’d say, well these– they work from me. We’re going in and sitting down. So we would go and sit down (LAUGHS), sit down in the movie.
But you know what I learned out of that? I learned then that, uh, it doesn’t pretty much matter what someone puts in front of you. If you keep a level head, and you think a little bit, you can always find a way to get around it, get over it, or if you have to, you go through it. And I think that was kind of my signature through life. And things like not being able to go to the movie theater, uh, not being allowed in certain parts of town, not being, uh, allowed in any decent schools. We went to the two-room schoolhouse there in, uh, Johnsville, which was Johnsville Elementary. Then we transferred to sixth grade to the Robin Moulton School up there on Charles Street. And we were limited to the things that you could do basically because of your race.
But being in an impoverished family, uh, really was not all bad. What it teaches you, first of all, which is probably one of the most important lessons in life, and that self-reliance. You quickly learn that you’ve got to depend on you to get you through. That, uh, to rely on someone else, it just isn’t going to happen. To make it you have to make the initial step. You have to put forth that great effort.
Once you put forth that effort, then usually people when they see you sincere about something, they jump on board. And they’re going to give you help, it gives credence to the, uh, uh, Bible verse that says, God helps them who help themselves. Well people help people who help themselves too.
And, uh, this was a lesson I quickly learned. So therefore, I would always, when things, conflicts came up, or when my parents who were definitely, definitely afraid of, uh, segregation. They were definitely afraid of the white man. And when things came up like, you can’t do this, you can’t go there, you can’t say this. I kind of, uh, balked at it, because I didn’t understand it. I didn’t want to accept it. And I remember things that stick out in my mind was they used to say, you know, you have to come in the house. You can’t play in the yard. That’s– why? The Klan’s going to ride tonight.
And you know, you’re like, this is a nice breezy, summer day. School’s out. We’re playing in the yard. We’re 8, 9, 10, 11 years old. You don’t quite understand why do I have to go in the house. And who is the Klan, anyway? You know. And, uh, if you don’t obey the white man, the Klan’s going to hind you. If you don’t obey the white man, the Klan’s going to whip you.
I remember the story about one of my father’s brother’s who was beat to death by some white folks, uh, white men down in the Sykesville area. And the men were never, they were never charged. And, uh, several other incidents of, uh, that type that occurred back during the day. And nobody white was ever charged.
And our parents would tell us these stories. But even at that, I was defiant in the fact that no, uh, I’m busy playing. I don’t know who this Klan is, but I don’t want to go in the house. I don’t know who they are. I don’t care who they are. I’m playing. And I have a right to play. I have a right to play in my yard. It’s not like I’m in somebody else’s yard, I’m in my yard, so I have a right to play.
And these types of things didn’t just, did not sit well with me. And from that early age, and I recall one night my father worked at Bethlehem Steel, and, uh, he worked at night just about dark. My mother herded everybody in, because the Klan was going to riot. And I guess I’m probably about 11 or 12 years old now, maybe 13, I don’t recall. And I got real, I just I got real angry. And, uh, my father had an old ivory, Johnson shotgun. And I thought, well they can riot tonight if they want, but if they stop here it’s going to be trouble. And I snuck the gun out of the house. And I went down on the front porch, and I sat with the gun across my lap. And it was loaded. And I thought if they come, if they stop here tonight, either I’m going, or they’re going. But somebody leaving.
JOHN LEWIS: And I was bound and determined that I wasn’t going to sit still. And that this, this simply had to stop. Because I was having an awful time trying to conceive of the fact that you’re telling me that these people don’t like me, because of the color of my skin. It just doesn’t make sense that you shouldn’t. But then the Bible says that men are created equal. The Constitution say that we are equal. And we should have equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But you’re telling me that somebody is telling me that I can’t have A, B, C, D, or E because of the color my skin. You’re telling me that the white man is says that I’m dumb, I’m stupid, that I stink, and that I’m dirty. But all that what little I can find out about slavery was, yes we have a right to be, at at that point, we had a right to be dumb, stupid, and stinky.
Because number one, we weren’t then allowed to get an education. So then if you don’t get an education, you’re dumb. If they don’t give us soap and water to wash, of course you’re stinky. You know. These things. But I had soap and water. I could wash. I had shoes, may have had holes in the feet to put on my feet, you know. I went to school. I was a learning.
So you know, none of this in this equation came together. For a boy of that age, or anyone commonly thinking. None of it made any sense. So that particular night I just grew hostile, and I said well, hey, if they come tonight either I’m going, oh they’re going. And if I got to go, I’m going to take somebody with me. But they didn’t riot.
My father came home about 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning, smacked me upside the head, and wanted to know what I was doing sitting on the front porch with that old Ivory Johnson. I don’t know what would have happened if there would have been five or six of them, because I only had, it was only a single shot. And I only had one shell. Had three in my pocket though, so.
And, uh, you know, I tried to explain to him what, what I was doing. But he didn’t– he said boy you’re going to killed.
JOHN LEWIS: You’re going to get hung. You can’t do that. That’s not what it’s all about. The law is the law, and they control the law. And I said, you know, they control the law only because we let them control the law. At some point in time, some of this has to change.
INTERVIEWER: So, tell us about your, like, going through school.
JOHN LEWIS: Going through school
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, elementary through, what’d you have, junior high.
JOHN LEWIS: Mm-hmm.
INTERVIEWER: Then to high school. What were, uh, some of your favorite memories? What were some memories that really taught you, and really shaped you as a young black man? And moving into, I know you’re moving into the Civil Rights movement, but what is it during school time that shaped you, and you that character that you needed to confront the things that were about to happen later in your life?
JOHN LEWIS: Well, the first thing that stands out in my mind in school was sports, like any– excuse me– like any young male I, I worshipped Joe Lewis, Jackie Robinson, these people. I saw them as a way out, as a way to get away from this sector of life.
And at that time that’s what I’m thinking. If you go over here, maybe like to like New York, or the big cities things might change. Not realizing until later in life that those problems existed over there too. But at least they lived what we thought then was the glamorous life. And I wanted to be a baseball player in the worst way.
And I remember a guy came to a school, a young white gentleman I can’t recall his name. And he’s tried to, he wanted to teach people how to play the guitar, completely free. He was going to furnish the guitars, and all. Awfully nice man and quite sincere.
I think that’s when you learn at that time, at that point in time, that not everybody white was a Klan member. And that not everybody white is a bad person. So you have to take people as individuals.
And this man offered us an opportunity to learn to play the guitar. And a lot of the guys did. So you had a choice, you could stay in at recess and learn to play the guitar, or you could go out on the field and played baseball. But of course I choose to go out on the field, and played baseball. Now I wished I knew how to play the guitar.
That was one of the, uh, one of the things that opened my eyes to the fact that change had to be made. So far as a learning was concerned learning, we were, uh, not given the best opportunity to learn, because we were not given the best of equipment. We had books that came from white schools. A lot of the pages we’re missing, so the teacher would have to skip over.
And often the teachers had to improvise a lot of things that we learned in those books were basically about white people. There was a very, very little except about slavery. And demeaning things about black folks were in those books. And we learned later on– and I questioned that too, because outside of the realm of the school, you would hear various stories about African American folks. Well like, Joe Lewis and Jackie Robinson. And these people– uh, what’s her name? Play tennis? Uh, Wilma Rudolph.
INTERVIEWER: Wilma Rudolph.
JOHN LEWIS: And these people, you know, you would hear about them. And you’re thinking, well, wait a minute why is it none of this in, uh, in uh, in these books. You heard about these great labor movements, and things that blacks were involved in. And you’re thinking, why is none of that in these books. You heard stories about inventions by a number of black folks. And, uh, have patents were stole from black folks. But then how a number of black folks their patents– Booker T. Washington, these people, Dr. Robin [INAUDIBLE].
But you wonder, well why is none of this in these books? It wasn’t in the books because the white folks didn’t print it in the books. And they didn’t print it in the books because, well you didn’t understand it then. But they didn’t printed it in the books because it was a systematic system to keep you dumb and stupid. So if it wasn’t there for you learn about, you didn’t know about it. And if you didn’t know about it, you’re ignorant to the fact. As long as you ignorant to the fact, you remain under the segregationist’s control.
INTERVIEWER: Now what were your teachers like?
JOHN LEWIS: The teachers were extraordinary. Like I said earlier, they, they had to improvise. And there were teachers like Kersey Jones, Mrs Reed, Mrs. Butler, who God bless her soul was still living, the Neal, Mr. Neal, Mr. Dotson, Mr. Crawford, here in Westminster.
Teachers, these teachers had a lot of times of the materials, that little that we did learn about things in the outside world. These teachers took it upon themselves to, uh, get this kind of stuff for us. Now there was, Mrs. May Prince, who worked in the school system, and she taught at Robin Moton, but she along with Mrs. Grimes, and Mrs. Mamie Dixon, were responsible for us later on. But especially by the time we got to the sixth grade in high school, to get a lot of decent material, and from which we could learn. And Mrs. Grimes of course was a white lady, and Ms. Prince was black. And of course you know Mrs. Mamie Dixon.
But these people were– sh– they were literally the three of them were responsible for us getting a lot of, what we termed at that time, modern learning. And you begin to learn things about, like I said, Joe Lewis and these people. You not only heard Joe Lewis on the radio, but you begin to– you were able now to sit down and read about Joe Lewis. Learn a little bit about his life, and Jackie Robinson, and these people, you know.
And then along comes– a little bit later on in life– along comes Dr. King. You learn about Dr. Ralph Bunche, there was Thurgood Marshall, and these people. And you’re saying to yourself, oh I’m saying to myself, wait a minute, these people they’re calling them Civil Rights leaders. And when I first heard the term I really didn’t know what it meant. And I had to get deep into it to find out what’s going on, what’s this all about. Well I learned that these people, you know, white folks would call them agitators. Black people were calling them heroes, because these were the people who are willing to stand up and fight for what was rightfully ours.
And I think that, coupled with the fact that we did not have the proper things to learn from, we weren’t getting the proper things from the books that were given to us, these were the things that actually– plus the fact that I wanted badly to become a professional athlete. And early on I knew that I couldn’t just go out there and hit that ball. I had to know something about things around me. I had to learn how to handle myself, because I did learn early on that some of the black folks in the business, especially the music business, were being literally taken to the cleaners by white folks.
And this, this rubbed me the wrong way, you know. So basically that coupled with the fact that I started learning about people like I said, like Dr. Ralph Bunche, Thurgood Marshall, and [INAUDIBLE], and a whole bunch that I can’t, that can’t come to my mind right now. And a lot of Sojourner Truths, Harriet Tubman. We learned about Harriet Tubman, and the Underground Railroad, and how she was going from the eastern shore, and we’re like wait a minute. Eastern shore’s just down the road from us.
And then you begin to question, well did Maryland have slaves? Yeah, Maryland had slaves. Eastern shore is in Maryland. Did Carroll County have slaves? Yeah, Carroll County had slaves. Because Carroll County is in Maryland.
And these things start to all come together in your mind. And you decide at this point, well I was hostile about it when I was younger. I’m now 13, 12, 13 or 14 years old. I’m in the high school. And as time went on, I became more determined that I just couldn’t settle. And I’m trying to remember what slave said it, I was thinking about it the other day. And he said– I have to look it up– and he said, I’d rather be dead and in my grave than to live my life as a slave.
And the more I learned about slavery, I became more determined that I just couldn’t, I would not last, they would have killed me, because you know. I couldn’t have lived that type of life.
INTERVIEWER: Now what kind of events did you participate in in the Civil Rights Movement? And can you just tell us a little bit about it.
JOHN LEWIS: Yeah, uh, but let me take you back a ways.
JOHN LEWIS: Uh, while in school, school was not the only thing that influenced my desire to become an active member, or to become an agitator, so far as Civil Rights was concerned. About eight or nine years old, Mr. Bill Hudson uh, came to school, and then he started to calling parents, and said he wanted to start a boy’s scouts troop.
INTERVIEWER: Now, who was he? Just a member of the community?
JOHN LEWIS: Mm-hmm. He was from White Rock, yeah. In fact his son, William and Gary Hudson, still live down there. All the same community that Sidney Shepherd was from. And, uh, he said he wanted to start a Boy Scouts troop. So, uh, he approached us. And when you said it I thought, Boy Scouts troop. And I’m thinking, what in the world was a Boy Scout. I had no idea what the Boy Scouts were even. You know, so I, he talked a bit about it. And had some pictures and things, and– excuse me– I, uh, saw these, at that time, white boys standing there in the uniforms, saluting the flag, you know. And with the badges and things on. And I’m thinking, hey this cool, you know.
So I ran home and told my mother and father. And I said, you know, I want to join the Boy Scouts. And because I had to explain what was going on, well as usual in our family when you started talking about doing something, the next subject was money. How are we going to pay for it. And of course you had to have a uniform. And you had to have your books, and things. And he explained all this too.
So I said, well you know, I’ll figure out a way to do it. Of course at eight years old I’m working, I’m making a penny an hour. So you know, I’m getting rich. And of course by 9, 10, 11, I’m working for Mr. Willie Torbin in the evenings, cleaning out his chicken houses. And then by 10 or 11, I’m working on my cousin’s farm. So I’m now making a little bit of money.
So I said, well you know, I will, I’ll get the money. I’ll pay for the uniforms. So we had our first Boy Scout meeting. And you know, I thought, wow this is a great. Because now, you know, you’re learning about the Boy Scouts, and that there are boys all over the world that are doing this thing. And we’re going to go camping. And we’re going to get– I’m going to get out of here. I’m going to see some other part of the world. And so, I, uh, between my little job, and back then, uh, we used to take the pop bottles back to the store, and you got, with the small bottles, I think we got $0.02. For the big bottles we got a nickel. And I started gathering up bottles, along the road, which people just handedly threw away.
Well there was money in those bottles, and I throw them in my little crate on my bicycle, and take them to the store, cashed the money in. Between that and what I made at work, I made enough money to get my Boy Scout uniform.
And I remember the first time we put that bad boy on, and we all assembled at the school. Let me tell you something, you couldn’t tell us we weren’t bad. (LAUGHING) We, we were bad. And that night Mr. Hudson and Mr. uh, Jim Green, was the assistant scout master and they said– it was about 25 boys– and said, we need a troop leader.
And we all- and all of us looking like, you know, what is a troop leader? Then I thought wait a minute, that’s the guy in the book. He’s actually third in rank to the assistant scout master. He’s the guy and goes out there then drills everybody, you know, and it comes down from the top. So I’m learning what authority is. It comes from there. The scout master, to the assistant scout master, to the troop leader, to the troops. You know. And I’m thinking, hey that’s cool.
So they said we’re going to vote. We’re going to do it democratically. Uh-oh. Another new word. What’s democratically, you know? What’s the democratic process? So now we– when the question came up. And they told us what the democratic process was. You do it by majority vote. And that’s what we did. And we had little ballots, you wrote down who you thought out of the 25 should make the, uh, should be the troop leader.
Well low and behold, when they announced the winner they said John Lewis, you the troop leader. And I’m like, you’re talking to me? You know. And I’m trying to figure, well why did they choose me? What do I have that’s special? What do I have that’s so, that’s more than these are other kids, 24 kids have?
And I said well, why me? And Jim, Mr. Green said, because your peers chose you. He said that’s the democratic process. So I’m thinking, OK fine. I don’t have the guts to bow out of this. And my knees are shaking so bad I don’t know whether it’s my knees, or my heart pounding, because I have no clue how this goes.
But he took me aside, and outside of the meetings he taught me what to do, and how to do it. And, uh, I became very good at it. And the boys respected, because the one thing he said to me was, you learn to treat people like you want to be treated. You learn to respect people, in order to get respect. And that stuck in my mind. But he also said you’re going to have to stand fast on what you believe in. Don’t ever let anybody sway you , especially, but he said, make sure you’re right. And you stand fast on what you believe in. And you’re going to have to do it with you troop, as well as you have to do in life.
And that got me through. That’s when I looked back over it, that’s when I recognized, or felt like I was some sort of a leader. I don’t know what. I didn’t know where I was going from there. All I knew is that it was a motivative thing. It’s this thing happened to me, and it gave me that boost that I needed. It gave me that confidence that I needed to actually face people, to stand up to people. And that was one of the highlights of actually growing up, along with the educational thing.
Life, from their on, just started snowballing from one thing to the other.
INTERVIEWER: I’m going to stop you right there for second.
JOHN LEWIS: Sure.
INTERVIEWER: Because, I– Marcel stop that for a minute. OK. What were some of the events that you participated in in the Civil Rights Movement? And, um, what would you say are some of the most important points that you gained from that?
JOHN LEWIS: Some of the, uh, well, a long, long, time ago we had in– we developed in the county what we called the County Human Relations Commission. And, uh, I chaired that for a awhile, which was probably one of my first things.
Uh, we did dip into a little bit of Civil Rights issues back when I was in the Boy Scouts. We got into some of the Civil Rights issues. And, uh, we did go out into the world– I might digress for a minute. We did go out into the world and we met a lot of other Boy Scouts.
Uh, in the area of Civil Rights– our community was predominantly black. I’m going to back up for a second. But just outside of our community, to this side, and to the lower side were white youngsters. And, you know, as youngsters we got along fine. It wasn’t until these youngsters became adults that they no longer wanted to participate with us, or deal with us on the same level as they, as they. We played baseball together, we played football together, we did all kinds of things, you know.
And as I got older, we started it– and in the Boy Scouts– we started to dealing in the Civil Rights issues. And as I got into my, uh, teens– well first of all, what really happened was I quit school when I was 16. And I did that because I had to help support the family. And I got into the workforce. In the workforce is where you started, really– the main workforce is where you started to really facing discrimination.
And then we started to talking amongst ourselves. And we got together a group called the, uh, Carroll County Human Relations Commission. Myself, Bernard Jones, George Collins, and several others, and Dr. Phil Benzol, Dr. Jones and his wife, uh, [INAUDIBLE]. Um, Dr. Bill David from the college. And we started the Civil Rights Movement.
Just prior to that, uh, I started talking to Union Street Church, uh, about some of the problems. And I, on my own, Clarence Dorm and I, I remember the first activity, actually I got into was a demonstration in front of the Carroll theatre. It was Clarence Dorm, and myself, and about eight or nine other people. I can’t remember all the names, Shirley McGruder, Virginia Hughes, and some of these people.
And we demonstrated in front of uh, the, uh, Carroll Theatre on behalf of Civil Rights, because the theatre, as you know, was segregated downstairs. You could only go upstairs, and sit. We learned that the gentleman lived in Towson, I believe it was. And that area he owned the theatre, the Carroll Theatre. Across the street from the Carroll used to be a State Theater. They closed that down. And he had several theaters around the country.
So our goal was to get the theater integrated. Well low and behold, some people, some powers to be at the college, uh, talked to the Baltimore Colts and got them involved. And that’s when things made a major change in not just Westminster, but in the county.
We’d, along with us foreman the, uh, Carroll County Human Relations Commission. And I started to work in back then– and by this time I’m married now. And I started to working with Congressman Parren J. Mitchell. And, uh, I was at a function, uh, in Baltimore. And I don’t recall exactly what the reason was, but I met Congressman Mitchell. And, uh, then we had a men’s day at our church. I was, uh, in charge of the Methodists Men’s Program at that time. I was also chairman of the administrative board.
And on that men’s day, I got Congressman Mitchell and I just seemed to click. And he was a Civil Rights advocate. And he supported a lot of what we were doing out here. And he came out on a men’s day, and he spoke to us. And then from that day on, we were in constant contact as to what to do, and how to do it. And, uh, we went around the community basically– what we did, in simple terms, was we, when we had a discriminatory problem, rather than, uh. Well let me put it this way. My first reaction was, I noted in others problems with Civil Rights, uh, discriminatory or segregation, in segregated areas, confrontations came out. People burned down, people rioting, people getting killed, people getting shot.
And the last thing I wanted to do was to get somebody hurt. And most of the time whenever there was a confrontation to be made, I set myself up as a sacrificial goat. And not be– believe me, not because I’m brave. No, believe me that was not it. I’m a big chicken to heart. And as the old saying goes, it’s better to be alive chicken any day, than it did hero. So I, uh, you know, I bore the blunt of the confrontation, but rather than– I noticed that, rather than going at it in a confrontational matter, we had to find another way. And it was what I had termed back then, and I still do, I used the back-door approach.
And what the back-door approach was, uh, let me give you an example out of many of them. One that stands out was, uh, a frock at a swimming pool. And that pool was for whites only. Now, I had done this before with a couple of restaurants, and other places it town. But frocks just stands out as an example. I, uh, went over to Gene, because, you know, we used to have activities at Gene’s place, dances and things. So I went over to Gene one day and, uh, walked in, and he was setting there.
INTERVIEWER: Who’s Gene?
JOHN LEWIS: Gene Frock used to own Frocks.
JOHN LEWIS: Uh, uh, what’s that Gene Bond Street? Yeah, on, on, on, uh, on Bond Street. And it was– it’s now a senior center. But then it was Frocks. He had a bit of a farm type thing, but he had this big hall. You could have dances and parties and things there. And he also had the swimming pool, which basically, as I know right now, was pretty much the only swimming pool in this area.
And, uh, I just walked in one day– I called him and I said I want to talk to you. And I went over and, uh, we sat down, and I don’t like beer, but that was the day I drank beer. And he said, come on have a beer. And I’m thinking, OK, if I don’t lead into this conversation. So we sat down, and we drink a beer or two, and we talked. And I talked him into, uh, just quietly integrating the pool. No press.
And that’s the way I tried to do everything, as quietly as possible. I found that when you did things nice and quiet and easy, and when you ease things into the public, when they realize it, it had already happened. And after it’s already happened, you have no recourse. You can’t say it doesn’t work, because there’s been work, and you’re just noticing it. But it’s already working. You know.
And, uh, we did this with the pool. We decided one day no press, and, uh, we just picked one day when I took my boys– because now I’m married. I picked the boys and we went down to, uh, the swimming pool. Dr. Benzol, and a couple others from the, uh, commission, we all went to the pool. We went in the pool. The white folks never batted an eye. They kept swimming, kids got in and swam. It was no big mystery. The next day the press got a hold of it. And it was a– they tried, they tried really to make a big to do out of it. But like I said, it had already happened then.
And now some people, and Jones will say, that we caused Frock to close the pool, but we really didn’t. He had said to that day when we talked, that he really didn’t know how much longer, because of his health and his age. And thought how much longer he was actually going to maintain the pool.
He also told me, on from some inside scoop, that actually Tony down at that point in time, had in the plans that they were going to open up a public pool. But he went on and did it, and things worked out fine. That was one of many ways, many times that we went through the back door.
INTERVIEWER: Now what happened with the, um, the movie theater. What were the results of that?
JOHN LEWIS: We, uh, (COUGHS) excuse me– like I said, the Colts came in.
INTERVIEWER: How did they, how did they get in, and what exactly did they do?
JOHN LEWIS: They, well they threatened to start boycotting things downtown–
JOHN LEWIS: –if things didn’t change downtown. Now, you know, even today the organization swings an awful lot of weight. And spent an awful lot of money. So I don’t take credit for that. I give all the credit for that to Baltimore Colts. Because little by little, things downtown started it change. You know, a restaurant like Shark,, for instance Shark is one night we watched Shark, they we decided to go into Shark, as in we’ll refuse service there. Well about time we were going to follow suit, that’s when the Colts said, eh, you know, unless things start to change, we’re going to– excuse me– we’re going to pull out of Westminster. We’re going to pull out the college. In between, between the college with this influence, and the Colts that helped to start changing things in the county.
OK. We were, I was, uh, into the Civil– well into the Civil Rights Movement trying to, um, desegregate restaurants and dealing with the discriminatory actions in the schools. Especially since my youngsters were now entering into the schools under the new new integration rules. And it was like almost every other day I was at the school, because my boys were into a fight because somebody’s calling them a name, and this kind of the thing. And it just got to the point where I just was, I was at the school so much until I think they posted a guard looking out for me. Because the time I got to the principal’s office, they knew I was coming. And, uh, I became the– after integration, in Carroll County, the county schools, I became the first African American to chair, uh, PTA. I was, uh, president of these middle school PTA.
I was also, also became involved, I was the first African American to join the, uh, all white Westminster Jaycees. Uh, their organization, I was there until I was actually too old . I served, uh, two terms as vice president. Another term as, um, let’s see, first vice president, first vice president. And then I did term– uh was housing chairman. Uh, also for a year. I also became president of HOPE Incorporated, which was a low-income housing. HOPE stood for, and stood for Home Owner Purchased Effort. We started at taking houses, uh, and remodeling them, and then selling them to low income people. Because, later on they got into we brought up, they bought up all the Union Street and redeveloped that. By that time Bernard was chairman of the organization.
I, uh, developed a youth group at the church called the Carroll County Pioneers. They, uh, we did Civil Rights Work. We went to the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington and help with that. Prior to that I had been, bunch of us had gone to, uh, the March on Washington, which in itself was certainly an inspirational thing. And it was one of those things that gave me that– it was like an explosion in me. Because when you got there, and you saw the mall filled with 200,000 or 300,000 people. And they were all marching to the beat of the same drummer, what– if I live to be 100 that will be the highlight of my life. That was– it was breathtaking. And I tried to tell youngsters like him, you had to be there to appreciate it.
And from there on, then we went to the past Public Accommodations law back in, what ’64 I believe it was. When I was chairman of the Human Relations Commission, and we’re all sitting around deciding that we should go to Annapolis. And we should speak on behalf on the Public Accommodations law. I think Judge Whent was Senator then, I’m not sure if I have that correct. But anyway–
INTERVIEWER: What was the Public Accommodation, what were they–
JOHN LEWIS: Public Accommodations law meant that they were passing a law to give you equal rights to motels, restaurants, and, uh, non-privately owned things like bars, and stuff like that. Now, private bars, and probably club houses were not included in it, because they later came into the pole, because they were otherwise losing business. But that’s what the Public Accommodations law was. You could, didn’t have to drive from Baltimore to Georgia, without, you could now stay in a motel.
And we were concentrating on the state of Maryland. And so we went down to Annapolis, and we met with the congresspeople, those Senator Whent and whoever else was in charge then. And that moment they said, we think you all should speak on the behalf of the Public Accommodations law. When we went, just mainly to observe, we had no intentions of speaking. So, uh, Phyllis Scott, Bob Scott, and let me see, I think Phil Benzol, and several others.
Anyway, we set right there in one of the rooms, and we wrote a speech. And then they said– this was one of these other times I got drafted– and they said, well who’s going to give it? And everybody turned and looked at me, and I’m like, I don’t think so, not before the General Assembly– the complete General Assembly? Noooo, and then they said, you don’t have a choice. You have to give this. So I thought, OK, all right. It would be totally unfair of me not to do this, because this is really my fight. Not theirs.
And we, I got, they called me- we went out and rushed it and everything, and they called me. And I had the speech. And I had read over it, and read over it, and read over it. But when I got in front of the mic, something happened. And, that little voice said, you don’t need this speech. You already know the story because you lived. And that’s what I told. I told that story. I told it just like it was, the way I had lived it. And the place stood, and applauded and I’m like, you know you turn around and look, and you go, who are they talking about. They applauding me? You know, what did I do? What did I do, you know.
But anyway, that was another one of the highlights. After that, uh, we coming up now into the school system we needed, uh, uh, somebody on Board of Education. And someone said, well John why don’t you, why don’t you, uh, go out. At that time it was an appointment board by the governor. And they said, why don’t you go for it. I remember, uh, I’m trying to think of what her name was, it’s been a while ago, the names escape me. But anyway, she and her husband were also on one of the Commissions. And they said, well John, why don’t you go out for the Board of Education? I said, I’m, I’m not a equipped to, uh, handle the Board of Education.
But you see, I quit school at 16. And then went back and got my GED. I had then gone to Morgan at night for two years. But I just didn’t feel that I was equipped to do the job. But I said to myself, well if nobody else wants to do this, hey I’ve jumped in with both feet before, I might as well jump in again. Not having any clue that the governor, who was Marvin Mandela at the time, was going to pick me to serve on the school board. Well he did. Well boy, pardon my French, but all H-E double L broke loose.
The segregationists came out of the woodwork. They did not want me on that board. And early, years earlier, I’d gotten into a fight and had a simple assault charge against me. Well they dug that up, and blew it out of proportion. [INAUDIBLE] Well you would have thought I murdered somebody. Went down and talk to Marvin Mandela. Him and I sat back in the governor’s office, and he said well, he said, we got two choices, John. I’m going to give it to you. And if I don’t give you, you’re going to leave here tonight and find me somebody black to do it.
I said, well if I can’t find anybody else black to do it, I will do it. He said, you’re going to do it if I have to give you police protection. So on the way home I called Bernie. And I said, told him the situation. He said, oh good Lord. And I can remember his exact words. I don’t want them digging in my past, he says. (LAUGHING) I said, well look, and this is about 10, 11 o’clock at night, and I said well I’m coming by your house. We going to have to do something. And so, him and I sat down, and we said, well who can we get? We said Richard Dixon.
So we called Richard. And in the beginning, let me explain this, it really wasn’t about me being on the board anyway. Important thing was that an African American got on that board. I didn’t really care, it could have been Mickey Mouse, as long as he was African American and he got on that board so it really wasn’t about me. I also learned another valuable lesson in life. If you have to do a job, and you feel that you’re not quite qualified to do it. Or if you think you know somebody who can do it better than you, you support that person and put him out there.
And I told Jones, I said, you know Dixon is better qualified to do it. And so are you. I said you both got degrees from Morgan. And Dixon dealt in finances and business. So we talk to Dixon, and then we had to coach him. Because he really wasn’t up to it. And we coached him into doing it.
And, uh, we put him, he decided to do it. And that’s how, that’s how he got on the Board of Education, because from there on he won up because he was good, and very good at what he did. And he was much more qualified than I was at doing the job. OK, and he did an excellent job of it. And he, of course as you know, he went on to become a member of the House of Delegates. And then went on to become a state treasurer. And as the old saying goes, the rest is history.
But my life in the area of Civil Rights isn’t over. it still goes on.
What I would like to do now, I would like to sit back and be able to coach young people. Or to support them to go out there and do. I would like to retire, and from my job, when I do retire I would like to just go around and teach young folks. Talk to them about black history, talk to them about slavery, talk to them about the people who died in the struggle. Take people like we go every January, we go on a Civil Rights tour down through the Southland. And we’ve been down, where Medgar Evers was killed. We been to Dr. King’s church. We’ve been all through that area. We’ve met people who were, they attempted to assassinate in Mississippi. One gentleman who still has two machine gun bullets lodged in his brain, where they– I would like to be able to tell young people that story.
That’s how I want, how I would like to conclude this– my, my life in the arena of Civil Rights. But so far as me actually stop fighting, no. That will be my way to fight, because the youngsters need to know that it takes years to build, but only seconds to tear down. And they need to know about the times of reconstruction, and stuff like that. When we once had, and we quickly lost.