Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is my hero. I became a different person, a different human being, as a result of this man and my association with him. When I was child growing up in rural Alabama, it was my responsibility to care for the chickens on my father's farm. I used to talk to those chickens, preach to them, even baptize them. If you were to look around my office in the U.S. House of Representatives today, you would see that I keep stuffed roosters and brass roosters and ceramic chickens everywhere to remind me of my beginnings. Because if it hadn't been for Martin Luther King, Jr., I believe that I would still be down there in rural Alabama preaching to those chickens.
I was very young--just fifteen years old, in the 10th grade--when I first heard Dr. King's voice on the radio. His words spoke to my heart, to my very soul. In my religious tradition, people say that someone is "called" to the ministry. That means a voice, a spiritual voice, speaks to that person's soul and says, "You must do something. If you don't do it, no one will. You have to take a stand. You have to speak up. You have to speak out."
That feeling of being called is the only way I can express what I felt that day when I first heard Dr. King on the radio. I felt that he was speaking directly to me--as if he was right in the room, looking me in the eye and using my name. He said that there were people in trouble, that the society was in trouble, and I heard his message of love and nonviolence as a very personal call.
I was open to this message of change. You see, growing up in rural Alabama, I was what Martin Luther King Jr., used to call "maladjusted to the problems and conditions" of that day. I had tasted the bitter fruits of segregation and racial discrimination, and I didn’t like it. It took Martin Luther King Jr., to make me understand that being maladjusted was a good thing, a necessary thing. As a small child, when my family visited the little town of Troy, Alabama, ten miles away from our home, I saw the signs that said, "White Men," "Colored Men," "White Women," "Colored Women," "White Waiting," "Colored Waiting." I would go downtown to the little theaters from time to time, and all of us little black children had to go upstairs to the balcony, and all of the white children went downstairs on the first floor. I would come home confused and upset and ask my mother, ask my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, "Why segregation? Why racial discrimination?" And they would say, "That's the way it is. Don't get in trouble. Don't get in the way.”
But when I heard Martin Luther King, Jr.'s voice on the radio that day, I heard a very different message. He was saying, "John Lewis, you need to find a way to get in the way." In the Old Testament, there's a story that says the way a prophet stirs things up is just like they way a mother eagle stirs up the nest to give the little birds the courage to get out and test their wings. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words on the radio that day agitated me to move, to get out there and stretch my wings. I was being called to get into trouble--good trouble, necessary trouble--and I've been getting in trouble ever since.
I was changed from the moment I first heard Martin Luther King, Jr.'s voice. Before long, I would meet him in person, and that meeting would change the course of my entire life. When it was time for me to go to college, I decided to apply for admission to Troy State College, a small local college near my home. I never received a response. So, without anyone knowing it, I wrote a letter to Dr. King, and I told him I wanted to try to desegregate Troy State. Dr. King wrote back to me and sent me a bus ticket to Montgomery.
Finally, on a Saturday morning in the March of 1958, my father drove me to the Greyhound bus station, and I boarded a bus and traveled the fifty miles from Troy to Montgomery. When I arrived, a young lawyer named Fred Gray met me there. He had represented Rosa Parks, Dr. King, and the Montgomery movement. He drove me to the First Baptist Church in downtown Montgomery and ushered me into the church office, where I saw Dr. King and the Reverend Ralph Abernathy standing behind a desk.
I was so scared I was shaking, and I didn't know what to say or do. Dr. King spoke up and said, "Are you the boy from Troy? Are you John Lewis?"
I found the courage to say, "Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis." I gave my whole name; I wanted him to know that he had the right man. That was the beginning of my involvement with Dr. King and the modern-day civil rights movement, an association that would not only change my life but make me a part of something so great that together we changed the destiny of America.
Sometimes, when I look at documentaries of the Movement or I visit one of the civil rights museums, I wonder at the tremendous spirit it took to inspire a people to endure so much and struggle so hard. It took someone like Dr. King to imbue ordinary people with the extraordinary vision to risk everything they had to bring down the walls of segregation. All of us knew that if we got involved in the civil rights movement, we could be beaten, or shot, or killed, but we faced the dogs and the fire hoses because we were longing to be free, and because Dr. King made us believe that it could happen. Perhaps his greatest lesson to me was when he said that "hate is too heavy a burden to bear." That ethic of nonviolence, that fundamental belief in the transformative power of love, was the philosophy that helped us endure. When someone would beat us, throw us in jail, spit on us, or put lighted cigarettes in our hair or down our backs, Dr. King's words and his example gave us the strength not to strike back, not to return their hate. I still heed those words today as I interact with my colleagues in the U.S. Congress.
Dr. King spoke about the honor in suffering: he told us we had to redeem the soul of America, and in order to do that, we had to be willing to suffer. So, during the height of the Movement, we would remind each other of our convictions and say, "Be prepared to put your body on the line." When a group of thirteen of us, seven whites and six blacks, left Washington, D.C., in May of 1961 to go on the Freedom Ride, we truly didn't know whether we would come back alive. But we were prepared to die, if necessary, for what was right.
I'm the type of human being that I am today, I am the kind of person I am today because of Dr. King. On one occasion he told us, "When a man straightens up his back, no person can ride him." And ever since I first heard those words, I have been trying to straighten up my back--to speak up, to speak out, and to believe in something greater than myself. He freed me by giving me the courage, the know-how, and the tools to strike a blow against racism and bigotry, and the whole society changed because of who he was and what he stood for.
There's a personal story that I think shows something about the distance we've come in America in laying down the burden of race. It’s a distance that we could not have traveled--that I could not have traveled--without the words, the example, and the influence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1956, when I was sixteen years old, I took my brothers and sisters and my first cousin down to the Pike County Public Library in the little town of Troy, Alabama, to get a library card. I don't know what possessed me to do it; we could have been lynched just for asking for a library card. But I wanted access to that knowledge, so I decided to test the grip of segregation. The librarian turned me away that day, explaining that the public library was not for coloreds, but for whites only.
In July of 1998, thirty years later, I went back to that library. It was in a different building, but it was still the Pike County Public Library. This time I went there, not to sign out a book, but to sign copes of my biography, "Walking with the Wind." Hundreds of citizens, black and white, showed up to hear me read and to shake my hand. The librarians there remembered that many, many years before I had been denied the chance to use the services of the public library. That day they not only welcomed me, but they also waited patiently for me to sign their books and gave me a library card.
We have come a long way in America because of Martin Luther King, Jr. He led a disciplined, nonviolent revolution under the rule of law, a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a distance to go before all of our citizens embrace the idea of a truly interracial democracy, what I like to call the Beloved Community, a nation at peace with itself.