|They traveled hundreds of miles through the South together. John Lewis at the wheel of the tan Pontiac, talking as he drove the streets of Atlanta, Birmingham and Montgomery. Mike D'Orso was listening and scribbling it all down. The tan Pontiac stopped on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, where Lewis relived "Bloody Sunday,'' the day state troopers split open his head with a club. And it stopped at the Birmingham bus station where Lewis was beaten. And it stopped at the jails where Lewis was locked up after staging another protest.
"It was like taking a walk through history,'' said D'Orso of the nearly 18 months the Norfolk author spent collaborating with Lewis on "Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement,'' chronicling Lewis' story of his civil rights activism in the '60s. "To have had John Lewis share his life with you is something special,'' D'Orso said.
Yesterday, the two shared something else special. "Walking With the Wind'' was named the winner of this year's Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, among the most prestigious in publishing. More than 200 books, both fiction and nonfiction, were nominated. The award was created in 1980 to honor books that reflect Robert Kennedy's concern for the poor and powerless and the struggle for social justice throughout the world. Past winners of the $2,500 prize include Neil Sheehan, Tracy Kidder, Toni Morrison and Melissa Fay Greene. Last month, "Walking With the Wind'' was named national Nonfiction Book of the Year by the American Library Association.
D'Orso, a former Virginian-Pilot reporter who has written 11 other books, didn't know much about John Lewis before the two met in 1996 to begin their journey through Lewis' past.
"We couldn't have been more different,'' said D'Orso.
Lewis is a short, blocky black man; he was one of 10 kids from a family that lived in poverty in the rural South on a farm. D'Orso is a tall, bearded white guy; he was raised on military bases and never had to do without.
"I had seen his name in some research I had done for other books,'' said D'Orso, a writer-in-residence at William and Mary, where he tries to teach students "how to get some life in their stories.''
"But I had no idea he was as large a figure in the movement as Dr. King. He was there at every major event. But to many people, he was an almost invisible figure in the movement,'' D'Orso said.
The 59-year-old Lewis, now in his seventh term as a Georgia congressman, was one of the founders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. He was there for the first Freedom Rides. He was searching the fields of Philadelphia, Miss., the day after civil rights workers Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner disappeared. And he was there the day King delivered his "I Have a Dream'' speech.
"In fact, John spoke before King and it was his speech that all the papers wrote about the next day,'' D'Orso said.
"My job was to guide John through the terrain of his story. To climb into his world and ask questions and more questions to reveal the texture and feel of the story and to bring it to life.''
One of the most riveting experiences for D'Orso was the day he and Lewis visited the Birmingham bus station where Lewis was beaten in 1961. Lewis was wearing an old ball cap and sweatshirt. When he introduced himself, some old men told him, "We remember you. We were here the day they whupped you.''
"Here we were, 38 years later, and these guys were working the same jobs as baggage handlers as that day,'' said D'Orso. "It says a lot for where we still have to go concerning fairness and justice. In the '80s and early '90s we lost our way. We've become so polarized racially, ethnically and economically. But I think a new generation is looking to come together again. John never lost that vision. He's always been there. Being able to tell his story is honor enough.''
Lewis and D'Orso will be presented the award by Ethel Kennedy May 18 in Arlington.