Civil rights veteran shares bus boycott memories

By Marie Gonzalez


A woman who participated with the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott came to campus Tuesday, Sept. Novella Lewis2 (1)1, to share her civil rights journey.

Novella Lewis, who was a member of Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., when King was pastor, spoke to Professor Robert Sosa’s sociology’s class, A Social History of the Civil Rights Movement and Beyond.

Lewis recalled for the University of the Incarnate Word students what it was like to grow up as an African-American during the time of the civil rights movement.

“We didn’t know anything about segregation because we lived it,” she said.

Lewis said King and other prominent leaders in Alabama organized the bus protests after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger.

“We did not ride the buses for a year,” Lewis said. “Black and white members of the community carpooled. We were (oppressed) and we wanted freedom.”

The boycott was successful, resulting in blacks being able to sit anywhere they wanted on the bus rather than take a back seat.

During her presentation, Lewis passed around pictures she took from her most recent visit to Selma and Montgomery, where King was a part of the famous marches for voting rights. The pictures included signs from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and various buildings from the area King frequented. No photos of buses were present, however.

After the protests, Lewis said she dropped out of the 12th grade. She worked as a hotel maid for a short time until she married her longtime boyfriend, Lee Lewis, who came with her for the presentation.

The Lees moved around for several years as he was in the military. She decided she wanted to be a hair stylist and went to a beauty college, graduating in the top percentile of her class. She attended a Mormon school where she was the only black student. She worked as a hairdresser for 40 years – living in San Antonio since 1972 — before retiring in 2014.

“I’ve never set a goal that I didn’t reach,” Lewis said, adding she wants to write a book on her civil rights experiences she can pass on to her younger relatives.

Asked what she recalled about King as a person, Lewis said he maintained a quiet, peaceful demeanor and could relate to people of all ages. In the pulpit, he was mesmerizing, she said.

After Lewis spoke, Kalai Lopez, a sociology major, gave her a gift from the class — a Hawaiian lei – and hugged her.

“It was a very moving experience to learn about the past and not forget about it,” Lopez said.

Sosa invited Lewis last year to speak to the class, which is offered each fall, and brought her back again.

“When I learned she was a member of Dr. King’s church, I knew I had to bring her,” Sosa said. “How often do we meet people that actually knew Dr. King?”