John Lewis was the conscience of the Congress. Does that title praise him or diminish his role in American history. Must those be our only choices? We so love the good-bad binary construct.
John Lewis was a member of a rapidly dwindling group of men and women who were raised in churches, taught to believe in Jesus' examples of activism, and believed passionately that this country could be better than it has been. While the founding fathers gave us the power to amend our founding national document, John Lewis' generation showed us the power to amend our national behavior, and to improve our national soul, by direct action.
Too many of his generation died at the hands of those who were terrified of change, or who had financial interests threatened by change. It is popular to say that people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X were "assassinated." Such a respectable word. But they were murdered, plain and simple. Like Emmett Till and Medgar Evers and so many hundreds more.
"Murder" sounds so ugly, when it's just about politics, or racism. But think of Emmett Till and James Chaney. They were not merely killed. They were tortured and mutilated before being killed. The language we use can soften the horrific, to make it more palatable. Emmett Till's mother understood this, and so insisted that his coffin be open at his funeral, so that the world could see what American racism actually looked like.
In 1965, he had his skull broken by an Alabama State Trooper while peacefully marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
John Lewis grew up in the world where black activists were routinely set upon, beaten and too often murdered. In 1965, he had his skull broken by an Alabama State Trooper while peacefully marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. (Does anyone now remember the name of that state trooper, or wonder what social contributions he went on to make?)
John Lewis, like so many of his compatriots, was raised in church. He was at American Baptist Theological Seminary (with C.T. Vivian), and went on to a second religion degree from Fisk University. His ability to speak so effectively, as well as the faith that compelled him to become the conscience of the congress, was nurtured and refined through his religious studies. Those who condemn all aspects of religious activity, simply because some religious hucksters pervert Judaism, Christianity or Islam for their own gain, risk losing the valuable motivation and tools that drove the Civil Rights Movement.
In the 50s and 60s, black activists thought that they would see an end to segregation and racial discrimination. They had hope and optimism. Like Moses, marching toward the promised land. As their hopes gave way to the reality of American racism, and its 400+ year persistence, John Lewis carried on the struggle. He worked toward the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and was still working when resurgent racist jurists on the United States Supreme Court gutted that Act in 2013.
John Lewis was still working for Civil Rights when the current Chief "justice" of the U.S. Supreme Court said that gerrymandering should be legal wherever Republicans want to pursue it. And he was still with us, this year, when the same Chief "justice" voted to overrule the super-majority of Florida voters who said that felons should regain the right to vote upon their release. Most of such released felons are black, and Chief Justice John Roberts said that it is proper for Florida to impose a poll tax on such voters, and to even conceal from the voters how much the poll tax is!
In 1857, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a slave owner, wrote in Dred Scott v. Sandford, that black people are "so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." Now, 173 years later, John Lewis, who worked through the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, the Women's Movement, and the LGBTQ+ Movement, got to watch as the current U.S. Supreme Court Chief "justice" wrote opinions that black people should not have the right to vote.
John Lewis knew that the battle for equal rights was not about individual acts of racist violence or discrimination. Rather it is a systemic issue. That the Chief "justice" of our nation's highest court can be an unapologetic proponent of eliminating voting rights for an entire "race" at a time when science has clearly established that "race" is not a scientifically defensible concept reveals the systemic pervasiveness of racism, and the limitations of the progress we have made since John Lewis was a teenage activist.
In her book, White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo argues that racism is not specific acts of discrimination or violence, but is the messaging embedded in our culture and social training from infancy to senility. - our de facto and de jure instructions for how to live life. DiAngelo focuses on some specific behavior patterns and lessons we learn. The death of John Lewis revealed another example to me.
On the July 2 anniversary of Thurgood Marshall's birth, I noted that Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, a literary gospel to which all writers make reference when they want a pithy or relevant quotation, did not include any quotation from Marshall, after his decades of speaking, writing and judging complex issues involving people, until Bartlett's 2012 18th edition.
When John Lewis died, I again looked at Barlett's, 17th edition which resides near my desk. No quotation from this "conscience of the congress;" from this man who spoke at the same 1963 march in Washington at which Dr. King said "I have a dream;" from this man who tirelessly opposed the use of wars for profit and colonialism. Nothing he said was worthy of inclusion by the American bible of important (and sometimes silly) quotations.
I looked further. No quotations from Louis Farrakhan. None from Julian Bond or Malcolm X or Al Sharpton. Rosa Parks gets one sentence. Maya Angelou gets two. Maybe black women are less frightening to the Bartlett's editors?
Are the Bartlett's editors racists? It is probably more convenient to think so than to take seriously Robin DiAngelo's argument that racism is so intrinsic, so thoroughly integrated into every aspect of our society that it infuses every part of everyday life. The Bartlett's editors were raised to see the world they expect to see. They don't see a world in which a teenage demonstrator, a freedom rider, a firebrand in his early 20s becomes the conscience of the congress of the most powerful nation on earth.
The 17th edition of Bartlett's didn't recognize anything important in the voice of anti-apartheid activist, community organizer, law school lecturer, writer and (at that time) state senator Barack Obama. Perhaps one difficulty in collecting great quotations is that it forces a focus on the past, rather than on those making the future.
The Bartlett's example is simply one of myriad. It stands out only because it is such an influential work that affects the work of writers around the world. That its 2002 (17th edition) failure to recognize John Lewis, who had been in congress since 1986, reflects and passes on the societal mindset that leads to the election of a president who still argues that the Central Park Five should be locked up despite being proven innocent, simply because they are all black men.
Like Dr. King, and Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X, and so many others who worked so hard, John Lewis did not live to see the promised land. But until June of this year, while suffering from the cancer that would kill him in July, he continued to fight to make it possible for others to reach the promised land.
His fight for Civil Rights and racial equality was not only against the murders of people like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and the routine traffic stops for the offense of Driving While Black. His more important fight the one which will ultimately undermine and topple our societal monument of systemic racism, was and remains the fight to recognize and openly address the cultural norms of Bartlett’s blindness to the existence of great black writers and speakers, and of Supreme Court “justices” who believe that black people should not vote.
Our society is suffused with such concepts. White men can’t jump. Asians and Jews are intellectually smarter, and more devious, than other races. And Ayn Rand’s still popular excuse for Native American genocide - Injuns are just too primitive and uncivilized to have any claims that white people have any business respecting.
If we do not take the current opportunity to address such concepts, integrated as they are into everyday experience and “understanding,” we risk repeating what the Supreme Court set in motion in 1955, when it told us that school integration should proceed “with all deliberate speed” (349 U.S. 294). 65 years later, millions of children still go to schools that are segregated by skin color and by budget allocations.
Most of the Civil Rights Marchers stopped marching, found jobs, raised families, learned to live with the lesson that “all deliberate speed” did not mean “in your lifetime.” John Lewis' legacy is that he did not stop marching, he did not stop working toward the promised land.
Most of today’s demonstrators will lose the fire. But the true legacy of John Lewis will be found in those few who push on, as he did. Push on against the resistance of society, and particularly of those who run society.