John Lewis: The Books In His Knapsack

Robert McNamara
3 min readMar 2, 2015

The Civil Rights legend, in a 1998 conversation, recalled the books he carried with him that day in Selma.

In the summer of 1998 I interviewed Congressman John Lewis, who had just published a memoir of his years in the Civil Rights Movement, Walking With the Wind. At the time I was writing for — before editorial humans were replaced by bots — and while interviewing authors I’d usually ask what they happened to be reading.

Speaking with Congressman Lewis, I was also curious about books he had been reading in the sixties, during the period when he was arrested more than 40 times. He recalled the books in his knapsack on March 7, 1965, the day he and others marchers were attacked and beaten by Alabama state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

In photographs from the 1960s, you’re often seen marching while wearing a knapsack in which you’d carry books. Say there was a young person today who wanted some books to carry in his or her knapsack. What would you recommend?

John Lewis: I would recommend Native Son by Richard Wright. I would recommend James Baldwin, almost anything by James Baldwin, really.

But I would recommend people to read, to read everything. See, when I was growing up, I wanted to check a book out of the library and I couldn’t.

Sometimes we learn so much just reading a book. Sometimes you can have what I like to call an executive session with yourself with a book. Sometimes I’ll be reading something and… it can be one sentence, one paragraph, and sometimes it just may be a phrase, but it’s something in a book or in a statement that speaks to the essence of what you are thinking, or what you are hoping. What you just feel.

You’ve written that books by Thomas Merton would turn up in your knapsack.

John Lewis: I had a book by Thomas Merton when I was walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, marching from Selma to Montgomery. And I had a book about American politics, The American Political Tradition [by Richard Hofstadter].

I would also sometimes carry books by Gandhi and about Gandhi; books by Dr. King and about Dr. King; and Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.”

Did they let you keep books in jail?

John Lewis: No. I like history books, inspirational books that speak to the soul, that tend to inspire you. I like philosophy. But, you know, in jail during those days, the only book you were allowed to read was the Bible. You couldn’t bring in The American Political Tradition, you couldn’t bring in a book by Thomas Merton, or about Martin Luther King, Jr.

Those books in your knapsack must have been a rock to lean on.

John Lewis: Oh, yes. When you were sitting in, at a lunch counter, or riding on a bus as a Freedom Rider, you could read. Because you would spend hours and hours sitting in at a lunch counter. Maybe from 10 a.m. to 5:30 or 6 p.m in the evening. So you could spend time reading, doing your homework or just reading a good book.

Any particular memories of books you’d read at the lunch counters?

John Lewis: I read a lot of black history during those days. Books by Carter G. Woodson and John Hope Franklin. Richard Wright. Individuals like that.

Frederick Douglass?

John Lewis: Oh yes. I quoted Frederick Douglass in my book. It was Frederick Douglass who said “power concedes nothing without a struggle.” That’s from a speech he made back in 1857.

There must be a struggle. It may be a moral one, it may be a physical one. But there must be a struggle. And I used to fight that struggle a great deal in my early days in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Robert McNamara