Throwback Thursday: Rep. John Lewis's Freedom Summer

The civil rights legend talks about doing time at a Mississippi prison farm.

Posted: 07/31/2014 12:45 AM EDT

By the time he turned 21, John Lewis had a rap sheet. These days, that's nothing to be proud of, but for the civil rights activists fighting for racial equality in the '60s, arrests and the accompanying mug shots were badges of honor that symbolized the extraordinary lengths they were willing to go for the cause.

In 1961, Lewis, who helped organize the historic Freedom Rides, spent about 43 days at Mississippi's Parchman State Prison Farm for challenging the segregation of public facilities. He could have paid a $250 fine to avoid being jailed, but instead he stayed behind bars for as long as he could.

"I wanted to dramatize the issue and put pressure on the federal government to bring down those 'white waiting,' 'colored waiting,' 'white man,' 'colored man' signs," the Georgia lawmaker told BET.com.

As in any jail setting, the conditions were far from ideal. Lewis says that while being confined two to a cell, he and his fellow freedom riders were like "little creatures in a zoo." But that didn't stop them from making productive use of that time, during which they conducted workshops on nonviolent resistance and sang freedom songs to lift their spirits.

"We would sing and have these workshops and learn," he said. "It was like a school in jail."

That definitely wasn't the sort of education his parents had in mind when they sent him off to Fisk University to earn an undergraduate degree.

"My mother wrote me a letter after I first got arrested and said, 'You went to school to get an education. You need to get out of this mess. You're going to get hurt [or] get killed,'" the now-civil rights icon recalls with a sly grin. "She told me I had a hard head, but I always had a hard head. I thank God that I survived."

Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.

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(Photo: John Lewis via Twitter)

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