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    brown chicken feathers

    Consider the Chickens

    John Lewis and His Feathered Friends

    Zito Madu

    September 9, 2020
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    When John Lewis was alive, he told the story of preaching to the chickens in his parents’ farm as a boy so often that his friends and associates were tired of it. Sometimes they stopped him from telling it before he could start. I wish I would have heard him tell it once. The story is so delightful to me that I could have listened to it as often as he wished to share it.

    In his May 2016 commencement speech at Washington University in St. Louis, he recounted it this way:

    A story I like to tell from time to time, when I was growing up on the farm, picking cotton, pulling corn, gathering peanuts, my mother would say, “Boy, you falling behind.” And I would say, “This is hard work.” And she would say, “Hard work never killed anybody.” I said, “Well it’s about to kill me.”

    Well, on that farm, it was my responsibility to care for the chickens, and I fell in love with raising chickens. As students, as young people, some of you eat chicken, right? I won’t bore you with the story but as a little boy, I fell in love with raising chickens. I used to take the little chickens and put ’em all together in a chicken yard, and my cousins and brothers and sisters would line the outside around the chicken yard, they would help make up the audience, or the congregation, and I became the minister.

    And I would preach to these chickens.

    And some of these chickens would bow their heads, some of these chickens would shake their heads. They never quite said “amen,” but when I looked back on it though, the chickens that I preached to in the 40s and the 50s tended to listen to me much better than some of my colleagues listen to me today in the Congress.

    The story of Lewis preaching to chickens is ready-made for analogy and moral lessons: The young preacher who wanted to save the souls of the chickens who then became the Civil Rights icon who tried to save the soul of America.

    several brown chickens in a farmyard

    Public domain

    In an old interview from 1979, he said that taking care of chickens led to his first nonviolent protest, “when my parents would kill the chicken and I would refuse to eat the chicken and it went for two or three days refusing to speak to my mother, father, because they killed a chicken. I thought that it was so wrong.”

    Often when the story has been referenced since his passing, it’s a fun tidbit, something to show the precociousness and eccentricity of the young Lewis. A story from his past that showcases how special he was as a child.

    I don’t want to look at the story as an analogy, since that process works backwards: He became a great man thus the event in childhood is given a special gravity. What delights me about the story, why it’s remained a joy to think about after his death and during a time of so much suffering, is that I picture him as a boy, without a sense that he would become a great man one day, taking his duty with the chickens so seriously, believing that those small creatures – inconsequential in the grand scheme of things except to be food for his family – deserved to have their souls saved. He saw that they were worth caring for, body and spirit.

    Never mind whether it was possible to truly save the animals’ souls; his caretaking was endearing because of the responsibility that he felt towards them. I give the story the same isolated gravity that the young Lewis gave to his task. It is important on its own. It must have been one of the most important duties to him at that time.

    It also makes me happy to think of the older Lewis being so proud of his stewardship of those chickens that he continued to tell the story to people around him and in public speeches even in old age. It seems like a memory that he relished so much that it became one of the consistent stories about who he was. It’s a wonderful image to think of: the great Civil Rights icon, with an impressive list of accomplishments, still talking about the chickens from his parents’ farm.

    Maybe the fate of every story is to eventually become an analogy or an event that is given meaning only by the years that follow it. Naturally we create and recreate ourselves through the years, discarding some stories and holding on to the ones which work toward our ideal selves. We even do it with others, and take it to an extreme level with our heroes. The story of Lewis preaching to, baptizing, and eulogizing chickens is easy to see as an example of his compassion, a compassion that extended to chickens who rarely receive such care. It can be seen as an example of the depth of his faith and ambition. It’s been told as an example of how exceptional he was as a child. It can also be seen as many more things.

    Yet for me, each time the story has popped into my head the past few months, I like to imagine myself sitting in front of the young Lewis with his chickens listening to him preach. I think of how serious he was and how critical the situation of saving these chickens felt to him at that time. It’s an incredibly comical and wonderful scene, a momentary reprieve from the horrors of the world. And as much as I try to avoid making it more than it was, I sometimes can’t help but to think of the child, the intensity of his sense of responsibility and love, as a great example of how the act of care should be handled.

    Contributed By Zito Madu Zito Madu

    Zito Madu is a writer living in Detroit, a contributor for GQ, and an avid lover of poetry.

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