For 15 years, Brenda Jones worked with late Congressman and Civil Rights icon John Lewis. Brenda talks with Jay about Lewis’s legacy of non-violent activism and its effectiveness. Listen now!
American Author, worked as John Lewis’s communication manager for 15 years
Brenda Jones (00:01):
I think Congressman Lewis was a categorically unique individual, who had always been seeking a way to engage the power of love, and a spiritual means, a means that was morally consistent with his belief and his faith, that could break the back of the segregated system.
Speaker 2 (00:33):
All Inclusive, a podcast on inclusion, innovation, and social justice with Jay Ruderman.
Jay Ruderman (00:43):
Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman, and this is All Inclusive, a podcast focused on inclusion, innovation and social justice.
Jay Ruderman (00:54):
Long time civil rights activist and veteran Congressman John Lewis, who passed away in July, 2020 is an icon. Loved and respected for his actions and leadership in the civil rights movement since the early 1960s. Although already well-known in the African-American community and amongst his peers in Washington, DC, Brenda Jones, his communications director is credited by the press as one of the key people responsible for solidifying Lewis’s public image and making him a household name in the United States and abroad. Brenda also co-authored with Lewis the book Across That Bridge, Lewis’s biography.
Jay Ruderman (01:39):
Before we dive into Congressman Lewis’s career as a civil rights activist, how did you become his communications director?
Brenda Jones (01:49):
Essentially before I even met Congressman Lewis, my husband and I went on what we call the civil rights tour to the Deep South, because I had never been to places like Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi. And so he had a medical conference in Nashville and we decided to take a tour, by car, from Nashville to new Orleans and back. And at the time we were reading Congressman Lewis’s biography, and it is very informative about all of the different sites in the South where many, many important things happened. It’s called Walking With The Wind. And so that was that.
Brenda Jones (02:42):
My husband subsequently passed away.
Jay Ruderman (02:45):
Brenda Jones (02:47):
Yes, but I was literally sitting at home thinking to myself, “Brenda, what are you going to do?” And a friend of mine had gotten a job in Congressman Lewis’s office and called me and said, “Brenda, this is a job I think you should try for.” So I did. hat day ended up being the first anniversary of my husband’s death, the day that I had the interview for this job. And that day, I actually had a flat tire on the way to the House of Representatives. So it was a very difficult day for me because of my husband’s death, very emotional, and I was really feeling negatively. I was thinking, “I’m not going to get this job.” And then I had a flat tire and I thought all these impediments, things aren’t going well.
Brenda Jones (03:46):
And when I got there, I just decided to put everything out of my mind, not, perfectionist that I am, condemn myself for anything that happened, but just be there in the moment and have a good interview, be positive. And it worked. We had a conversation that lasted about an hour and a half, and then the chief of staff said to me, “Can you meet the congressmen tomorrow?” So I said, “Yes, of course.” And we met at a Starbucks that is very close to where the Congressman used to live on Third and Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast in DC. So I went upstairs and the Congressman and his chief of staff were sitting at a small table and I just sat down at the table. The interesting thing about Congressman Lewis is that he is a very warm, gentle, engaging person. His presence was very, very powerful, so you knew you were in the presence of someone who was special, but he himself was a very mild-mannered person and really easy to engage.
Brenda Jones (05:09):
He wasn’t dramatic or overpowering or anything that you think would be what a important influential public figure was like. He just simply asked me questions and I answered them. And he said to me, because this was in 2003 during the Bush administration, and he said to me, “Why are you interested in getting into politics at this time?” Because of course it was a period of deconstruction of many of the things that he was involved in. And I said to him, “Well, I wouldn’t just work for any politician, but you are a person who’s put your life on the line so that I could be there, so that we could participate in the political process, so that millions of people would have an entrance to democracy in America.” And I think that did it. He said, “Well, okay. You talked to my chief of staff.” and I got the job.
Jay Ruderman (06:19):
It must’ve been emotional, but at the same time, it sounds like he really put you at ease.
Brenda Jones (06:25):
Absolutely. He was someone who moved around the House of Representatives. He spoke to everybody, literally everybody, policemen, people who were picking up the trash, receptionists, everybody. He gave everyone his attention and respect. That was something that was very important to him, that people were respected, for their dignity and their worth, every human being. I remember when I first got there, for some reason there were elevator operators in the Cannon building. And when I told her who I was working for, she got very enthusiastic, which was true, working for him. But this was one of my first experiences with that. And she said to me, she said, “Brenda, I have always wanted to pinch Congressman Lewis’s cheeks. He has the most amazing cheeks.” And I said, :”Well, it’s true. He does have baby cheeks.” So we talked about this.
Brenda Jones (07:39):
And then, later, I think it was maybe a day after, the Congressman came into the office, and he asked for me, which of course I was a new employee so that didn’t happen very frequently in the very beginning. And he said, “I talked to”, he mentioned the name of the elevator operator, I can’t remember her name, but he said, “I talked to so-and-so”, this person. And I was so embarrassed. I thought, “Oh, no, what did she say?” And he said, “She told me what you all said.” And I thought, “Oh my God.” I don’t know what he’s thinking. I told her he has baby cheeks. And I said, “Well, did you let her pinch your cheeks?” And he said, “Yes.” He was an engaging person. He really, he loved people. And he was a very open, engaging, creative person.
Jay Ruderman (08:45):
So let’s take us back to the early ’60s. Congressman Lewis was well-known for his philosophy of nonviolent activism, as you’ve said, which he sometimes referred to as good trouble. And an example of this was that he was one of the key organizers for what was known as the Freedom Rides from Washington DC to New Orleans. Now, for the benefit of some of our younger listeners who may not know this history, can you briefly talk about the story of these rides?
Brenda Jones (09:18):
Yes. Well, the Freedom Rides occurred sort of in the early to the middle of the civil rights activism of the 1960s. So at this point, Congressman Lewis had already been a successful participant in the Nashville sit-in movement, where they through a process of sit-ins had desegregated downtown Nashville. So, what happened was there was a Supreme Court decision that essentially stated in interstate travel, which of course is managed by the federal government, desegregation was illegal. And as many of you may know, in the 1960s, before 1964, before the advent of the Civil Rights Act, it was illegal, against the law, in certain Southern states, most of the states of the old Confederacy, for African-Americans and white people to share a seat on a bus.
Brenda Jones (10:27):
And the Montgomery bus boycott was part of trying to break that law, trying to demonstrate that it was immoral. And so that had been successful in the Montgomery boycott, but there were still all of these states throughout the South where it was illegal. So what would happen is if you were traveling, say from Boston to Montgomery, Alabama, once you got across the Mason-Dixon line, everybody would switch seats so that white people were sitting next to each other and black people were sitting next to each other at the back of the bus. And if that didn’t happen, you could literally be arrested and taken to jail.
Brenda Jones (11:24):
So what these individuals did, and Congressman Lewis was on the first Freedom Ride. He was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders. They were attempting to ride from Washington DC to New Orleans, Louisiana.
John Lewis (11:44):
The next day, May 4th, we boarded a Greyhound bus and some boarded a Trailway bus leaving Washington DC, as a integrated group. The first real incident occurred in a little town called Rock Hill, South Carolina, about 35 miles from Charlotte, North Carolina, when my seat mate, the two of us, tried to enter a so-called white waiting room. My seat mate was a young white gentlemen.
Brenda Jones (12:11):
And once they got into a variety of cities like Rock Hill, North Carolina, for example, they were met by violent and angry mobs led by the Ku Klux Klan. In some instances, they were dragged off of these buses. They were beaten. And then you can see many stories of them, including Congressman Lewis and his seat mate, Jim Zwerg, who experienced a disability that he has to this day from the beating in those rides, and their bloody faces during this encounter.
John Lewis (12:58):
And members of the Klan attacked us and left us lying in a pool of blood. They left us bloody. The Freedom Rides continued.
Brenda Jones (13:20):
These were mainly young people, students, who decided to take on this kind of activism. And they all had to write out their wills. They knew that they could all be killed and in order to participate, they had to write out their Last Will and Testament, and somewhere, somebody has Congressman Lewis’, the letter that he wrote saying what he wanted to do if he was to, or what he wanted to have done if he was to be killed. And they got as far as Mississippi, in many cases, in Congressman Lewis’s case, they were arrested en masse in Mississippi. So they sent hundreds of people on buses to Mississippi, and they would all be arrested and put in jail. So in the end, I think it was like two or 300 people were imprisoned in Mississippi. They decided not to accept bail because they wanted to make a point. And so they stayed there for about 30 days in Parchman Penitentiary to make the point that this kind of practice was wrong.
Jay Ruderman (14:40):
At that time, the world was watching, they had gained the world’s attention of the segregation, the racism, and the hatred that was going on in the Southern part of the United States at that time. So their technique of not accepting bail and staying in prison was gaining a lot of attention.
Brenda Jones (15:00):
Absolutely. Absolutely. And it was ultimately what it gave rise to was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that effectively ended segregation, legalized segregation. It is no longer legal for someone, a public organization. You can privately, you can still ban people privately, but publicly you cannot segregate.
Jay Ruderman (15:32):
During one of these protests, Congressman Lewis was badly beaten by a mob, and arrested, as you said, but by the state police, but yet he insisted on nonviolent protests in the face of such violence. Can you explain why? I mean, some people when faced with violence are going to react with violence, and yet he and his followers never did. And in doing so probably gained the moral high ground, but it must’ve been such a difficult thing to go through, to be beaten and to be injured and not fight back.
Brenda Jones (16:13):
I think Congressman Lewis was a categorically unique individual, who had always been seeking a way to engage the power of love, and a spiritual means, a means that was morally consistent with his belief and his faith that could break the back of the segregated system. He had long been, as a child, really resistant to, and unable to comply with, segregation and complained frequently to his parents that it was wrong. And so when he heard Martin Luther King, Jr. on a radio one Sunday when he was 15 years old, he took hold of this philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. So even as a young person, I think he was very captivated by this, and this made it easier for him than maybe other people, say you or me, who have a different kind of orientation, to accept nonviolence as a means to change, to transition and change.
Jay Ruderman (17:32):
Can you talk a little bit about Congressman Lewis’ relationship with Dr. King? I mean, they were of different ages, but they obviously knew each other.
Brenda Jones (17:41):
Yes. He adored Martin Luther King, Jr. because he says that Martin Luther King, Jr. essentially gave him and hundreds, maybe even thousands of others, a way out, or a way in, depending upon how you want to look at it. He was someone who grew up in the cotton fields of Alabama, who knew something was deeply wrong in our society, who wanted to do something about it, but he didn’t have the means. He didn’t have a mechanism by which he could create change. And Martin Luther King, Jr. embodied, symbolized, and executed the capacity to make a change that freed millions of Americans, not just, Civil Rights Act of 1964 affected not only African-Americans, but all Americans, as did the Voting Rights act of ’65. And so he deeply admired Dr. King, and in fact, he wrote to Dr. King when he was a young man.
Brenda Jones (18:56):
So when he was 15, he heard King on the radio and he immediately went out and engaged a protest. He took all of his cousins and brothers and sisters down to the public library and asked to get a library card. And the librarian told him, he said, very nicely, that it was not possible for him to have a library card because he was an African-American. And so they left the library and he liked to say that he didn’t return to that library until they gave him a book talk related to his first book Walking With The Wind. And when he came there and gave the talk, they gave him a library card.
Brenda Jones (19:46):
So Congressman Lewis learned the discipline and philosophy of non-violence at the feet of some masters, men who were deeply, deeply committed to non-violence in any circumstance. And when in Rock Hill, North Carolina, for example, he was beaten, and you see those famous pictures of him and Jim Zwerg standing there with bloody faces. They asked him, “Do you want to press charges?” And he and Jim Zwerg said, “No. Our interest is not in revenge or meting out punishment, but we are trying to demonstrate to people that violence is not the way. This is not how we should engage with each other.” So they didn’t press charges. And he was willing to get beaten and arrested many times to serve a greater cause.
Jay Ruderman (20:51):
So let’s go back to the time, again, obviously there is this very powerful, very influential movement of nonviolence in the civil rights movement that’s grabbing hold, but maybe you can talk about the reaction of the African-American community at the time to this philosophy of nonviolence. Were there other activists who took a different take and said, “No, we’re going to meet violence with violence?”
Brenda Jones (21:25):
I think most of the civil rights movement actually was non-violent. Even if you’re talking about aspects in the North, related to Malcolm X and and the Black Panthers, for example. Even the Black Panthers were not violent. They believed in self-defense. So they didn’t go out and create violence, but they did say, unlike Congressman Lewis’ branch of the movement, “If you are violent toward me, I am going to defend myself.”
Brenda Jones (22:02):
So I think the reason that non-violence really took hold in the southern United States is because the relationships between African-Americans and white communities was very intertwined in the South, mainly because it’s an agricultural community, so there is an interdependence that has to occur. You need many, many people to farm your crops, and most of those people were African-American people. So there was a interesting kind of interplay between African-Americans and white Americans in the South that made non-violence resonate. Also, the South was then, and still is, very Christian in its orientation. So anything that a minister said was taken as nearly as the truth in the South, especially at that time. And many of these individuals, I mean, essentially the civil rights movement was a movement of ministers.
Brenda Jones (23:11):
And so because of the backdrop of that teaching in the South, and the influence that it had, and the fact that all of these things occurred in churches, there were many, many people who accepted and took on the charge to engage in non-violent protests. Young people, children, mothers, fathers, doctors, lawyers, they all had to engage in these massive protests in order for, non-violent protests, in order for the movement to be successful. And they did. They did do that.
Jay Ruderman (23:53):
Let’s talk about love for a moment, because there was an interesting incident where one of the thugs who attacked Congressman Lewis during the Freedom Rides was a man named Elwin Wilson. And in 2009 Wilson and Congressman Lewis met again, but this time under very different circumstances. By the time you were already working for Congressman Lewis as his Communications Director, what can you tell us about this extraordinary meeting and how it came to be?
Brenda Jones (24:25):
It was a journalist for a newspaper in Rock Hill, South Carolina that I had interacted with before on other stories, who got in touch with me.
Brenda Jones (24:38):
And he said, “Brenda, there is a man in Rock Hill who was part of the mob that beat Congressman Lewis. And he would like to apologize.” So I told Congressman Lewis about this, and he was immediately receptive.
John Lewis (24:59):
Many years later, and remember, this happened in May, 1961. The local police officials came up and wanted to know whether we wanted to press charges. We said, “No. We come with peace and love and nonviolence.” In May, or February, rather, ’09, one of the members of the Klan who had beat us came to my Washington office. He heard through a reporter that I was there, came with his son. His son was in his 40s. He was in his 70s. He said, “Mr. Lewis, I’m one of the people that attacked you and your seat mate. I want to apologize. Will you forgive me?” I said, “Yes. I accept your apology. Yes, I forgive you.” He started crying. The son started crying. They hugged me. I hugged them back and I started crying.
Brenda Jones (26:11):
And Elwin Wilson, he was a really interesting man. Apparently when Barack Obama was elected to the presidency that had an impact on Elwin Wilson. And he was elderly by this time, and thinking about the fact that he wasn’t going to be here forever. And so he told a friend of his that he was concerned that he might not ascend when he died, but actually might go a place that he was concerned about. And his friend said to him, “Well, it’s not too late. It’s not too late for you to rectify some of the things that you have done.” And so he set about apologizing to a variety of people, he had been a member of the Klan, so a variety of people who he had injured, but the only person he wasn’t able to reach was Congressman Lewis.
Brenda Jones (27:16):
And this reporter said to him, “Well, I know how to get in touch with him.” And that’s what happened. Elwin Wilson was a very interesting man. I’m sorry that he passed away.
John Lewis (27:32):
That is the power of the way of peace. The power of the way of love. The power of the way of nonviolent, to be reconciled. In the final analysis, we are one people. We are one family. We all live in the same house. Not just American house, but the world house. I must tell you, tonight, that in spite of 40 arrests, jailings, being beaten and left not only bloody in Rock Hill, South Carolina, but at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery when I was hit in the head by a member of an angry mob with a wooden Coca-Cola crate, I’m still hopeful. Still optimistic. And I say to you here tonight that we must never, ever give up. We must never, ever give in. We must never get lost in a sea of despair. We must keep the faith. In spite of being arrested and going to jail 40 times during the ’60s, and being arrested five times since I’ve been in the Congress, I’m not going to turn back.
John Lewis (28:52):
And you must not turn back. You must not give out. You must not give in. We can create the beloved community, here, here in America.
Jay Ruderman (29:17):
I want to switch gears finally and talk about another area of Congressman Lewis’ activism, that’s education. And in 2013, he released a graphic novel, essentially a comic, called March, about the civil rights movement. How did this idea come about and why did he choose a comic in the first place?
Brenda Jones (29:39):
Well, I don’t think he was enamored of the idea in the beginning, but he had a member of his staff who was very involved in comic books and wanted Congressman Lewis to write a comic book with him. During the Montgomery bus boycott a group released a comic book called Martin Luther King, Jr. And The Montgomery Story, and Congressman Lewis remembered how impactful that comic book was during the Montgomery years. And so I think that was influential in his knowing that a comic book could reach people that a video or a book, a 300 page biography, would not. And his interest was always in reaching out as far as he could to anybody who could listen to a message about peace and non-violence and government, getting engaged in government and politics.
Brenda Jones (30:51):
So ultimately I think he was convinced that this is something he should try. And he was a very creative man, unbeknownst to most people. He loved innovation. He loved technology. He loved new ideas. There were many instances where he was engaged. We did liner notes to a record. He was included in rap videos. He was included in little cameos on television series. So he was open to and interested in any kind of creative way to reach young people.
Jay Ruderman (31:33):
You worked with Congressman Lewis for 15 years. How did he change your life and your own views on activism and making an impact in the world?
Brenda Jones (31:47):
That is very interesting. I think he really symbolized and demonstrated to me the power of nonviolence, because I grew up in a city that was more engaged in using power to push back against things that happened to you, to take a stand, to be confrontational. And it wasn’t until I started working with him that I really realized that kind of philosophy had really emerged from the civil rights movement. And he taught me how the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence is a more, really, I think, more effective strategy, than confrontation. Not that non-violence is not confrontational, it is, but if you can confront with the kind of wisdom that looks toward the future resolution that needs to come, then really you are engaging the truth in a way that cuts through all of the difficulty, the ups and downs, everything you’re going to face before you get to that point.
Brenda Jones (33:13):
So I think that’s why a lot of people worked for him for a long time, because his presence, it was informative. You absorbed something in his presence, unnameable, that you just couldn’t receive elsewhere. He was just a great, really extraordinary individual.
Jay Ruderman (33:38):
Well, Brenda, it’s been a pleasure speaking to you today. Very informative, and I really appreciate your time.
Brenda Jones (33:46):
Well, thank you. Thank you so much for keeping the life of John Lewis alive. He is a great man. He represents so much that we need to understand. So I’m glad you are interested in talking about it.
Jay Ruderman (34:03):
Brenda Jones (34:03):
Jay Ruderman (34:08):
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