Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was nearly killed by the Ku Klux Klan while helping to lead the Freedom Rides in Alabama in 1961. He knows the destructive power of racist hatred first hand, and he is now warning about the forces that have been stirred up by the divisive presidential campaign of Republican candidate Donald Trump.
“I’ve been around a while and Trump reminds me so much of a lot of the things that George Wallace said and did,” Lewis said in an interview with The Times after speaking at Cal State L.A. “I think demagogues are pretty dangerous, really. … We shouldn’t divide people, we shouldn’t separate people.”
“Sometimes I feel like I am reliving part of my past. I heard it so much growing up in the South,” he said. “I heard it so much during the days of the civil rights movement. As a people, I just think we could do much better.”
Trump launched his campaign with a divisive message of racism, accusing Mexicans of being criminals and “rapists.” Since then, it has gotten worse. Trump-inspired thugs have attacked Latinos. His campaign supporters have – on multiple occasions – attacked black demonstrators at Trump’s own rallies, sometimes egged on by the candidate himself. And Trump has also proposed a ban on Muslim travel to the United States.
As former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Rep. Lewis is the last of the “big six” leaders of the Civil Rights Movement still alive (the others are Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young).
Lewis was attacked by the KKK while participating in the Freedom Rides, buses of young activists that went to register black voters in segregated Alabama. The Klan deflated the tires of the bus he was on and forced it to stop. They attacked Lewis and the other riders, beating them for trying to accomplish their peaceful mission. Speaking about the attack years later, Lewis explained, “It was very violent. I thought I was going to die. I was left lying at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery unconscious.”
Lewis was also beaten by Alabama State Troopers on Bloody Sunday as civil rights marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. His skull was fractured after he and others were hit with night sticks.
For his role in the civil rights struggle, Rep. Lewis was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2011.
Featured image via The White House