Rep. John Lewis told the moving story of his life Monday at an event honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr — and let the tale of forgiveness overcoming hatred stand as his response to attacks against him from President-elect Donald Trump.
Speaking at a breakfast on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the congressman said he was throwing out his prepared remarks and he never mentioned Trump by name after the President-elect had blasted him over the weekend as a man of talk and not action.
Lewis described a life of action over decades in his address.
Growing up poor as a sharecropper’s son, Lewis said his involvement in civil rights activism began when he was 17 years old, continued throughout his life and came to define his career.
Lewis talked about the sit-ins and marches in which he participated and the times he was arrested protesting racism and discrimination, as well as the brutal assaults he endured.
He described an incident where he was beaten bloody by members of the Ku Klux Klan after attempting to enter a “white waiting room.”
“Many years later, in February of ’09, one of the men that had beaten us came to my Capitol Hill office — he was in his 70’s, with his son in his 40’s — and he said, ‘Mr. Lewis, I am one of the people who beat you and your seat mate” on a bus, Lewis said, adding the man said he had been in the KKK. He said, ‘I want to apologize. Will you accept my apology?”
After accepting his apology and hugging the father and son, the three cried together, Lewis remembered.
“It is the power of the way of peace, the way of love,” Lewis said. “As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Hate is too heavy a burden to bear.’ … You must never, ever hate. The way of love is a better way. The way of peace is a better way.”
He urged his young listeners to take action, to not be quiet, in the face of things that are “not right.”
Lewis also recalled the freedom march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, or Bloody Sunday, that turned violent on the Edmund Pettis Bridge when state troopers attacked the demonstrators.
“I was hit in the head by a trooper with a night stick. The first one to be hit. Knocked down, my knees went from under me. I thought I saw death,” Lewis said.
Not once mentioning Trump, Lewis’ stories in themselves stood in opposition to Trump’s attacks on the civil rights icon on Twitter Saturday.
Trump referred to Lewis as “all talk” and “no action” after Lewis questioned Trump’s legitimacy as president.
“I don’t see this President-elect as a legitimate president,” Lewis said to NBC News’ Chuck Todd in a clip released on Friday. “I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected. And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.”
“Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad,” Trump tweeted Saturday morning.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle quickly came to the Georgia congressman’s defense.
“Ahead of #MLKday2017, let us remember that many have tried to silence @repjohnlewis over the years. All have failed,” House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi tweeted on Saturday morning.
“John Lewis and his “talk” have changed the world,” Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse tweeted with a link to images from the Selma march.
But Trump remained adamant in his criticism of Lewis, later tweeting: “Congressman John Lewis should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S. I can use all the help I can get!”
The back-and-forth continued Monday.
“Congressman Lewis started this, with your own Chuck Todd, by saying that the election was illegitimate and that President-elect Trump was an illegitimate president,” said Sean Spicer, a top Trump aide.
“To see somebody of John Lewis’ stature, and iconic nature, who has worked so hard to enfranchise people and … getting people involved in our voting systems … to then go out, when the candidate of his choice doesn’t win, and try to talk about the delegitimatization of the election is, frankly, disappointing,” Spicer added.
But Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York backed Lewis’ statement about the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency on CNN’s “New Day,” arguing that “although legally elected,” he is “not legitimate.”
“We’re not questioning the legality, we are not saying he is not the president or can act as president. We are saying that the election had real problems brought on by the FBI,” Nadler said.
First lady Michelle Obama also tweeted in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and thanked Lewis.
“Thinking of Dr. King and great leaders like @repjohnlewis who carry on his legacy. May their example be our call to action. -mo”
Lewis is among a growing group of politicians who have said they will not attend inauguration this weekend.