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In Nashville, Rep. John Lewis Gets Surprise From His Civil Rights Past

Rep. John Lewis views for the first time images and his arrest record for leading a nonviolent sit-in at Nashville's segregated lunch counters in 1963.
Rick Diamond
Getty Images
Rep. John Lewis views for the first time images and his arrest record for leading a nonviolent sit-in at Nashville's segregated lunch counters in 1963.

It was a weekend for Rep. John Lewis to remember his past. The Georgia Democrat and civil rights icon filled a Nashville auditorium and told stories of his role in the student movement.

And he showed that he can still rally a crowd of hundreds.

"When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just," he said, "you have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate, to stand up, to speak up and speak out, and get in the way, get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble."

Lewis won the National Book Award last week and was in Nashville to receive another literary honor for his best-selling graphic memoir trilogy, March. But he was also almost brought to tears when presented with an artifact from his early days of activism.

To Lewis, "good trouble" meant enduring attacks and arrests while protesting segregation. And those moments inspired the gift that Nashville Mayor Megan Barry came to the stage to reveal: Lewis' mugshots and arrest records from 1961, '62 and '63.

"You were busy!" Barry said. "You were arrested while you were protesting injustice. You were on the right side of history when the power structure of our community was not."

The images document some of Lewis' earliest arrests during sit-ins. In one photo, Lewis scowls at the camera in a suit with a skinny tie. An officer's note mentions the poor college student had $5 in his pocket — details that Lewis hadn't seen in decades.

"I was surprised, and almost cried," Lewis said. "I held back tears, because I was so young. I had all of my hair and a few pounds lighter. I would love to have copies of them, place them in my Washington office. So when young people, especially children come by, they will see what happened and be inspired to do something."

Lewis' Nashville rap sheet had long been elusive. For over 15 years, local historian David Ewing asked the police to find the records with no luck. That changed on the eve of Lewis' visit when Ewing heard from police spokeswoman Kris Mumford.

"I remember texting David, 'Eureka! We found 'em!' " Mumford said.

The records were in "this small, manila envelope that had not been seen since the early '60s," Ewing said.

They will be seen a lot more now. The Nashville police chief teaches city history to cadets and plans to show off Lewis' records.

The police department's lesson is that these days, officers should allow demonstrators to assemble.

Copyright 2016 WPLN News

Tony Gonzalez, a reporter in Nashville since July 2011, covers city news, features inspiring people, and seeks out offbeat stories. He’s also an award-winning juggler and hot chicken advocate who lives in East Nashville with his wife, a professional bookbinder. During his time at The Tennessean newspaper, his investigative reporting and feature stories were honored in the state and nationally. Gonzalez grew up near Chicago and came to Nashville after three years reporting and editing at Virginia's smallest daily newspaper, The News Virginian.