The wings of the bird: Rep. John Lewis and his view of the American press

‘We need the press to be a headlight and not a taillight,’ Lewis once told an audience of Pulitzer winners.

July 20, 2020

At a time when the American news media had come under attack as the “enemy of the people,” Rep. John Lewis had this to say to Mike Pride, then director of the Pulitzer Prizes: “Without the press, the Civil Rights movement would have been a bird without wings.”

Pride tweeted that memory in tribute to Lewis, who died last week at the age of 80. The conversation with Lewis happened on March 31, 2016, during an evening celebration in St. Petersburg, Florida, where Poynter was hosting an event to commemorate the centennial of the Pulitzer Prizes. We were to focus on prizes that had been awarded on topics related to race and social justice.

John Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement, a champion of voting rights, a hero of Selma’s “Bloody Sunday,” agreed to deliver the keynote address.

Fourteen years earlier, at the launch of a book about journalism and civil rights in the 1960s hosted at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper, I met Rep. John Lewis for the first time. I read aloud from a famous column written by Eugene Patterson in 1963, when Patterson was editor of the Constitution. He had written in passionate response to the bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, resulting in the deaths of four young Black girls.

“Your reading brought tears to my eyes,” Rep. Lewis said afterward. “I cried when I first read Gene’s column back then. And it made me cry again.”

Patterson, who died in 2013, became editor of the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times and owned by Poynter) and a key leader in the formation of the institute. During his time in Atlanta, he developed lifelong friendships with civil rights leaders, such as John Lewis, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Andrew Young.

Rep. Lewis and his colleagues understood clearly the historical failures of the American press — not just in the South — to lead the nation out of its own vicious version of apartheid. But there were white editors in the South — such as Patterson and his mentor Ralph McGill — who in their own flawed way were inspired by Black protestors to try to do the right thing. Several of those editorialists — who were boycotted, threatened, even bombed — won Pulitzer Prizes for their courageous work.

In March 2016, almost a thousand attended Poynter’s event at the stately Palladium theater to celebrate a century of journalism in support of social justice. John Lewis would be the main attraction.

More than 20 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists sat near the stage. They stood, one at a time, the audience holding its applause. At the conclusion, hundreds began cheering for the creators of great journalism in the public interest. The applause was sustained beyond anything the reporters and editors could have imagined.

Lewis caught the mood of the evening and delivered about 15 minutes of personal history and encouragement. He told some of his favorite stories, how as a boy he would preach to the chickens on the family farm as he was feeding them, imitating the great pastors of the day.

He would be inspired by the sermons of Dr. King. In 1963, at the age of 23 he would join Dr. King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the historic March on Washington. (He would become the last living speaker.)

One of the presenters at the Poynter event was Colbert I. King, a veteran columnist and Pulitzer winner from the Washington Post. In a tribute to Lewis, he wrote:

My son Rob King of ESPN and I were co-participants in “The Voices of Social Justice and Equality” program, where Lewis delivered his keynote address. Oddly enough, with all the gatherings in Washington where Lewis was present over the years, St. Petersburg was the first time I had the chance to personally interact with him.

As always with a John Lewis speech nothing was left in the tank.

“I come here tonight to thank members of this great institution for finding a way to get in the way,” Lewis told us. “Finding a way to get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble” is what journalists should be doing, he said.

“We need the press” he said, “to be a headlight and not a taillight.”

With great passion, Lewis left us with these words: “You must not give up. You must hold on. Tell the truth. Report the truth. Disturb the order of things. Find a way to get in the way and make a little noise with your pens, your pencils, your cameras.”

At the end of the evening, the choir began the famous anthem of the movement, “We Shall Overcome.” In the tradition of the protest march, members of the choir, and then the entire audience, crossed their hands to create a link to those next to them. My hands were locked to the lectern, as I prepared to read.

But as I looked out at the audience, now standing, I saw how many were inspired, how many had their eyes closed, tears streaming down their faces. Men and women. Black and white. Old and young. Someone reached over and grabbed my hand. I looked up. It was John Lewis.

Watch a recording of the full Pulitzer Centennial Celebration event here or watch John Lewis’ speech from the night here.

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at Poynter. He can be reached via email at roypc@poynter.org or on Twitter at @RoyPeterClark.