Memories of John Lewis: the teacher’s teacher


Local Voices

Gale Gillis Carter

When I was selected as Indiana’s 1st Congressional District’s US House of Representatives 2008 Teacher Fellow, I had no idea that I would literally come face-to-face with a legend from my field of instruction, American History. I and other teachers were received by American Civil Rights hero, the late Congressman John Lewis.

Each summer, the US House of Representatives Teacher Fellow program provides two cohorts of 12 Social Studies teachers from across the country an opportunity to learn firsthand and onsite about US Government and History. Part of the program includes presentations by Congressmen, Capitol Hill staff, and ancillary professionals such as journalists and special interest groups, to give a realistic view of the depth and breadth of the operation of the national government.

Gale Carter stands to the left of Congressman John Lewis in 2008. (Photo provided)

One of the Congressmen who hosted our group was the most admired and esteemed John Lewis. Upon entrance, his staff made us feel very comfortable in his office. We were seated in a circle and served tasty Goobers candy and Coca-Cola, both companies headquartered in the Congressman’s home state of Georgia. Then the iconic John Lewis joined us; he was humble, gracious, and sincere — a true Southern gentleman.

Mr. Lewis related his life story. His large, extended family had shared a small home whose exterior had deteriorated so, that in a storm, the wind would blow through and rattle the house. The family matriarch would have them withstand the storm by huddling the family together as one strong, impenetrable unit. This lesson would not be lost on the young John Lewis in his future.

Mr. Lewis’ poverty did not stifle him. Just the opposite — it motivated him to work hard to improve his condition and the condition of those around him. Countering the indignities and discrimination of the Jim Crow South, the young John Lewis and others put their lives at risk to push America closer toward her promise of equal justice for all Americans.

Mr. Lewis relayed that a high point on his path of activism was when he met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They worked together in the Civil Rights Movement. One project they shared was recreated in the film Selma, where Dr. King and a young John Lewis and others countered the storms of discrimination and injustice with nonviolent protest as they assembled as one strong, impenetrable unit and marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the same way Lewis’ family had faced the storms of his boyhood. Every year Congressman Lewis commemorated that event by bringing members of Congress and others to again walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Congressman Lewis concluded his presentation with a gift for each teacher, a DVD film about his life. His parting words for us were to go home and encourage our students to be brave against social injustice by, as he coined it, “making some noise.”

Fortunately for America, Congressman Lewis’ voice did not fall on deaf ears. Our youth today continue to echo John Lewis and “make some noise” in the good fight of “Justice for ALL.”

Gale Gillis Carter is from East Chicago, Indiana, and is the author and presenter of Why did these Great People Bend?, a book of poetry covering African American History from Africa to President Obama’s second inauguration

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