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Civil rights icon John Lewis sees pro athletes as new civil rights warriors

Former Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., who survived an assassination attempt in 2011, left, reaches out to civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., right, as House Democrats call for action on gun safety legislation after the deadly mass shooting in Las Vegas, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017.
Former Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., who survived an assassination attempt in 2011, left, reaches out to civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., right, as House Democrats call for action on gun safety legislation after the deadly mass shooting in Las Vegas, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017. AP

When Rep. John Lewis sees NFL players kneel as the national anthem plays before games, he is inspired. It reminds him of the “kneel-ins” civil rights activists held in the 1960s before rallies and the march from Selma to Montgomery.

“We did that. It’s not new,” Lewis, D-Ga, says on the season opener of Majority Minority, a McClatchy podcast about the people of color changing Washington and politics. “We had kneel-ins at churches. In 1962, we had a kneel-in at a recreation center in Cairo, Illinois before we marched from Selma to Montgomery to dramatize the fact that after kneeling and praying we were going to get up and walk from Selma to Montgomery.”

Lewis, the last living speaker from the 1963 March on Washington, talks on the podcast about the state of the civil rights movement, what to do with confederate monuments and why he believes Donald Trump isn’t a “legitimate” president.

Lewis was one of the first politicians who found himself as the target of one of the newly elected president’s tirades on Twitter. Lewis questioned the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency, citing Russian interference in the election, and said he wouldn’t attend the inauguration.

Trump called Lewis, whose skull was fractured by police during the Selma march, “All talk, talk, talk — no action.”

Lewis, who has been called "the conscience of the U.S. Congress,” was born outside of Troy, Alabama. As a young boy growing up on his family farm, he was inspired by the activism of Rosa Parks and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose speeches he’d listen to on radio broadcasts. As a student at Fisk University, Lewis organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville.

Lewis led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was responsible for organizing student activism during the Civil Rights movement. He was elected to Congress in November 1986 and has served since.

Lewis professed confidence in a new generation of activists, and specifically the professional athletes who are using their public platforms to raise awareness and convey a message.

“They have a great deal of influence,” Lewis said. “Sometimes history and fate just brings things together. And I think that is happening now.”

Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis discusses race relations and voting rights with reporter Sheryl Stolberg ahead of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

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