It was December 1986, and my daily joy was to help show some international students around Atlanta during their Christmas break.
People around the world tend to associate the city with three things: Coca-Cola, CNN and Martin Luther King Jr.
The World of Coke had not yet opened, but we were welcomed to the world headquarters. A tour of CNN was included, as well as visits to the King Center for Social Change and Ebenezer Baptist Church.
To add significantly to that experience, we wanted the students to hear firsthand from a civil rights participant. John Lewis had just been elected to what would be the first of several consecutive terms in the U.S. Congress.
He agreed to meet us for lunch at Paschal’s Restaurant – not the new one by Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but the old one tied to a motel that is now part of Clark Atlanta University.
The congressman-elect and I had a wonderful conversation over some classic soul food, including the Paschal brothers’ famous fried chicken that he and I seemed to enjoy more than did many of the students.
He told me about his call to and preparation for ministry, recounting his oft-told, famous story (later made into a children’s book) about growing up in rural Alabama.
There, as a boy, he would preach to a less than attentive congregation of barnyard chickens.
In Nashville, he studied at Fisk University and at what was then called the American Baptist Theological Seminary, jointly supported by the National Baptist Convention, USA, and the Southern Baptist Convention.
He shared that Paschal’s Restaurant played a significant role in civil rights, calling the African American-owned motel and restaurant complex, built and operated by brothers James and Robert Paschal, “the unofficial headquarters of the movement.”
“For a while, it was the one place in the South where Blacks and whites could eat together,” he said.
You never knew who might be there, he added, noting that Bobby Kennedy regularly occupied the same table in the late ’60s.
The civil rights veteran glanced around the restaurant’s back room where we were eating, as the mostly Asian students contemplated the white bowls in front of them with crust on top and some gooey substance dripping over the sides.
“You know, this is the last place where I saw Martin alive,” he said reflectively, which led to more stories I heartily consumed along with the collard greens.
When everyone was generally finished with the meal, Congressman-elect Lewis shared some of his civil rights experiences with the students from around the world. They were appreciative and so was I.
Walking out of the hallowed room, he and I smiled at each other when noticing the numerous untouched bowls of extra-sweet Georgia peach cobbler.
I’m thankful to have heard those stories firsthand that day. Though it was a casual time and I took no notes, it is amazing how clearly those stories and that experience are embedded in my mind decades later.
The July 16 death of John Lewis reminds us the heroes of that movement are moving on. It’s sad he died at a time when racial fears are being stoked by the highest officeholder in the land.
But he also died at a time when people of all ages and races are rising up against the sins of individual and structural racism. And he was always one who saw hope in every struggle.
John Lewis died still fighting the continuing inequalities and injustices we shall overcome someday. Some day.
Photo: Luigi Novi / Wikipedia.com (https://tinyurl.com/y55e8oox). Cropped.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.