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He Had To Take A Stand: Yellow Springs Resident John Fleming On The Legacy Of John Lewis

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courtesy of John Fleming
Yellow Spring native John Fleming with the late Rep. John Lewis

All over the nation this week, Americans have been reflecting on life and legacy of Congressman John Lewis. His funeral will be held Thursday at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Here at WYSO, Basim Blunt, senior producer in the Center for Community Voices, spoke with long-time Yellow Springs resident Dr. John Fleming, who knew Lewis.

Fleming has had a long career as a museum director and historian, creating museums all over the US that reflect upon the Black experience in America. Here at home, he was the founding director of the Afro American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce and director of the Underground Railroad and Freedom Center in Cincinnati. He's now the director of the National Museum of African American music set to open this fall in Nashville, Tennessee.

Fleming first saw John Lewis in Alabama, having gone there in March of 1965 for the final March from Selma to Montgomery.

Transcript (edited for length and clarity):

John Fleming: I was a student at Berea College, and after the onslaught at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, there was a call for people from all over the country to join the march. And as a student at Berea, we organized students and faculty, and took about 70 people down to join the march as they were coming from Selma entering into Montgomery. And that's when I saw people like John Lewis and Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders. But it made a definite impression on me. And since then, I've met him any number of times and had the opportunity to work with him on several projects.

Basim Blunt: So how are you feeling today as most of the nation is mourning this great legacy? How are you feeling personally having had experiences and working with him and being inspired by him?

John Fleming: Well, I was thinking how my life would might have changed if I had accepted his job offer when he was the director of the Voter Education Project back in the early to mid 70s in Atlanta. We met in Washington, and he interviewed me and offered me a position there. And I was just getting ready or had just started my graduate program at Howard University and felt like if I didn't go on to the doctorate, I may not have another chance. So instead of joining him there, I stayed in Washington and worked on my degree. But I was I was just thinking what my life would have been like if I had joined the Voter Education Project, it probably would have been very different from an academic career or career in the music profession. But I do remember, John as a very down to earth person, very kind, very gentle and very easy to talk with and to get to know. And in many ways, he was very humble. All of the things that people are saying about him nationally, I think that they were very true.

Basim Blunt: What do you think his legacy is for our youth, especially right now with the protest and the Black Lives Matter movement, gatherings and demonstrations going on all over the world? What's John Lewis's connection or legacy to what's happening right now?

John Fleming: He was actually a teenager and in his early 20s when he began the movement, and I think that his life was one where when he saw injustice, he had to take a stand. And I think that's what he's telling young people today, that you can take a stand and you can change the world one step at a time. And I think his his life exemplified that. Again, as we reflect on his life and on his death, the fact that the movement in the 60s was basically comprised of all young people, either in their late teens or early 20s, and that it is the young generation that can really make dramatic change. And I think that now that we are an older generation, we should support the efforts of these young people.

This story was created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.