Yesterday as we left the National Book Fair, my husband and I were able to catch the first few minutes of a speech by Congressman John Lewis, who has authored two books and been the subject of many more focused on his work in the civil rights movement. He opened with a story about raising chickens on the his family farm during his childhood. He had two kinds of hens, layers and setters. The layers laid the eggs, and the setters kept them warm for three weeks. Then newborn chicks would be given to another hen and the sitting hen would be tricked into accepting a new batch of eggs for her nest. Deploying such ruse against a hen is cruel thing to do, but his family didn’t have $18.95 to order an incubator from the Sears, Roebuck catalog, also known as the big wish book.
There were a lot of things Lewis wished for as a child and very little his family could afford. Yet he remembers his days on the farm with fondness and speaks of a childhood blessed with loving, faithful parents who taught him to pray and the art of “making a way out of no way” when ends didn’t quite meet. He learned of the evils of segregation during his first trip to town at the age of six and ached to erase such a fundamental unfairness from that moment on. Even before then, however, Lewis dreamt of being a preacher, and he practiced on his chickens. He and his sister played church and lined the chickens up in rows so he could preach. As he retold the story today, he got laughs by pointing out that the chickens were more productive than Congress.
More importantly for his eventual success, living on a farm and raising chickens taught Lewis to be patient. Nothing happens overnight. It takes three weeks to for a chick to hatch. How many of us understand that today? My eggs come from a cardboard box that is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week from the grocery store, which got it from a truck that picked it up from a distribution center. The distribution center uses other trucks to collect the eggs from the producer whose hen house likely contains thousands of uncaged birds of not hundreds of thousands of caged birds. There’s no six year old boy bonding with these creatures and proclaiming the Gospels before them as they cluck and peck.
Before we nostalgically yearn for those simpler days, let’s be real about the world that John Lewis was born into on February 21, 1940. His mother Willie Mae had ten children, a husband and a large extended family to feed and manage. While there was plenty of love and work on the farm, at that time a black person in Alabama had no functional right to vote. Segregation forced black children to endure separate but unequal schools, restrooms, and pools. Seating rules were enforced in theaters and on buses. Restaurants might serve a black family in a separate section, but more likely they handed food out the kitchen door if they served you at all. So few hotels allowed blacks that driving across the south often meant packing your food and sleeping in the car.
John Lewis lived through all that and the kind of rural poverty that meant you ate what you raised, and if that wasn’t enough, too bad. Somehow, he did not become bitter and angry as so many people might. Instead, he dedicated his life to practicing nonviolence. He studied to be a minister and learned how to create social change through patience and persistence. He grew from a boy who tried to convert chickens to Jesus into a man who is now considered the conscience of Congress.
What was it like to be the mother of that boy? To see your precious child hide under the porch so he could go to school instead of joining his siblings in the fields? In an interview for the Academy of Achievement, Lewis recognized his mother’s struggle:
But I think my mother had a tremendous impact because she knew we needed to get an education, and she would say, “Study, get an education,” but at the same time she was torn. She knew we had to work to help around the house and help gather the crops. And my father and my mother did their best, and when I look back on those early years, I don’t know how they made it. I don’t know how we survived.
Knowing of her son’s aspiration to become a minister and the family’s limited budget, Willie Mae gave John a brochure for the American Baptist Theological Seminary, a school in Nashville which allowed students to work for their tuition. While in Nashville, Lewis became involved in the civil rights movement and eventually got arrested during a 1960 sit-in.
My mother, my dear mother, she was so worried. She was so troubled. She didn’t know that I was even involved, because I hadn’t had any discussion until she heard that I was in jail, when the school official called and informed her that I was in jail with several other students. The next day or so I got a letter saying, “Get out of the movement. Get out of that mess. You went to school to get an education. You’re going to get yourself hurt. You’re going to get yourself killed.” And I wrote her back and said, “I think I did the right thing. It was the right thing to do.” Years later she became very, very supportive, especially after the Voting Rights Act was passed and she was allowed to become a registered voter.
(source: Academy of Achievement)
His mother was right about the dangers: John Lewis was badly beaten on “Bloody Sunday” during the March to Selma in 1965. In full view of cameras, Alabama state troopers and sheriff’s deputies charged and bludgeoned the marchers. Lewis managed to return to the starting point of the march, but he was soon hospitalized with a fractured skull. What was it like to get that phone call?
At one time, Willie Mae Lewis may have wanted nothing more than for her son to quit the movement and get himself a proper, normal, safe ministry in a church. A few weeks later after John Lewis and nearly 25,000 others successfully marched to Montgomery, how did his mother feel? Was that the moment that caused her to finally support his work, or had it come earlier? Perhaps it was in 1963 on the day of the March on Washington, when he gave a speech from the same podium as Martin Luther King, Jr.
Transformation takes time. That is a key lesson of farming, of motherhood, and of citizenship. In his book Across that Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change, John Lewis writes an entire chapter on the value of patience as a catalyst. It begins with this quote from another mother, one who nurtured the world through her example:
Without patience, we will learn less in life.
We will see less. We will feel less. We will hear less.
Ironically, rush and more usually mean less.
More thoughts soon on how patience and chickens connect to Congress.