Speakers for the Civil Rights Summit panel titled “Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement: Views From the Front Line” stressed the importance of looking to the future. But their recounted experiences of the 1950s and 1960s served as an instrumental reminder to inform the present. Julian Bond, former chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, and UN Ambassador Andrew Young—who all played important roles in the civil rights movement—spent the panel reflecting on their past despairs, fears, and victories, as well as their hopes for today’s generations.
Each of the panelists told their story of what it was like as active members of the civil rights movement. Lewis, who grew up in rural Alabama, said that his sharecropper parents had told him not to get into any trouble. But then he heard about the actions of Rosa Parks and listened to the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “I saw signs and I didn’t like the signs I saw,” he said. “I got in good trouble, necessary trouble.” Lewis went on to help form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and lead the Bloody Sunday demonstration, all the while maintaining a philosophy of nonviolence, love, and peace. “When I got arrested the first time, I felt free. I felt liberated,” he said, noting that it was the civil rights movement that created the necessary environment to make the Civil Rights Act of 1964 possible. “The March on Washington, I think, was one of the finest hours. It was a sea of humanity.”
Bond was a student at Morehouse College when he became involved with the movement. After hearing about sit-ins happening around the country, he staged a student sit-in at Atlanta City Hall. “One thing was certain—being arrested would follow,” he said. Bond would soon help found SNCC, lead protests, found the Southern Poverty Law Center, and serve in the George House of Representatives and the Georgia Senate.
Young, meanwhile, was growing up in New Orleans, where his father told him, "’White supremacy is a sickness. And you don’t get mad at sick people. You help them. Don’t get mad—get smart.’” He said that the March on Washington never would have happened without the South. Young went on to help King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference coordinate desegregation efforts.
All three of the men shared their proudest moments of the civil rights movement. Bond’s was when he was arrested in the Atlanta City Hall, while Lewis’s was marching from Selma to Montgomery for what turned into Bloody Sunday. Young’s was when he was beat by KKK members for marching in St. Augustine, Florida. “That night I felt good,” said Young. “I felt like playing football.”
Still they had moments of deep sadness. When King was assassinated, Bond said he felt like one of his family members had died. “I felt everything we’ve worked for is over.” But Lewis and Young explained that King had so prepared them for the event that they knew how to move on. “The philosophy of nonviolence tells us not to get lost in a sea of despair,” said Lewis. Young added, “We came right back from the hospital and we sat down and we said, ‘they can kill the dreamer, but they cannot kill the dream.’”
In the face of such violence, how did these men do what they thought had to be done? “If it took our death to redeem the soul of America,” said Lewis. “I think some of us were prepared.” Bond added, “Generally it was to say, ‘well he’s doing it, and he’s doing it, and she’s doing it—so why can’t I do it?’”
Bond’s comment led the panel to discuss the role of women in the movement. Although history remembers leaders such as King and Malcolm X, women—with the exception of Rosa Parks—are less well known. “Without young women, middle aged women, old women, there wouldn’t have been a modern day civil rights movement,” said Lewis, noting that women were instrumental in the movement being peaceful as many men initially thought they would have trouble being nonviolent.
Moving on to the future, the panelists told the audience what they think are the civil rights issues of today and of the future. In his response, Young focused on the importance of addressing economic issues to help remedy world hunger and homelessness, as well as lowering the cost of college tuition to make education and resulting student loan debt less prohibitive and punitive. Bond cited concerns for education and segregated housing, in which “white people live over here and black people live over here.”
Lewis said he was tired of ignoring the people “in the shadows,” and encouraged a movement for immigration reform. “The most pressing need for young people is to move with a more deliberate speed to create a truly multicultural, multiracial, democratic society,” he said. “I don’t accept this idea that there are individuals that are illegal. There’s no such thing as an illegal human being. I think we’ve been too quiet.”