Building the Beloved Community

Building the Beloved Community

After the civil rights movement, John Lewis moved from protest to politics. But he remained optimistic about the Black freedom struggles of the twenty-first century.

John Lewis in Selma, Alabama 2015 (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope
by Jon Meacham
Random House, 2020, 368 pp.

In a group photograph taken at the White House of the speakers at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, John Lewis stands obscured in the back row. At the time, Lewis was chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and, at twenty-three, the youngest speaker at the march. “You’ve got to get out front,” a friend at SNCC later told him. “Don’t let King get all the credit.”

The Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Jon Meacham took that advice to heart in His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope. Martin Luther King Jr. has a prominent role in Meacham’s biography, but the book underscores the contributions of Lewis and his generation of civil rights activists, roughly a decade younger than King, who so often put their lives on the line.

Lewis, of course, never wanted to push King aside. “He was the man who opened my eyes to the world,” he said. They first met in 1958 when Lewis was a student at American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee. Lewis wanted to integrate Troy State College in his hometown of Troy, Alabama, and he knew that he needed help in a project of such scale. King sent Lewis a bus ticket to come to Montgomery, and the two began a friendship that lasted until King’s death in 1968.

The “boy from Troy,” as King affectionately called Lewis, never did integrate Troy State College. He bowed to the wishes of his parents, who were fearful of what would happen to them and their small farm if Lewis went through with his plans. But he had taken the first step in his long civil rights career.

In Nashville, Lewis found a second mentor in the Reverend James Lawson, who had spent time in India and become committed to nonviolent protest through the example of Gandhi. For Lewis himself, politics and religion were inseparable. Meacham captures the origins of Lewis’s belief in the Beloved Community—a society based on the idea of trying to achieve the Kingdom of God on earth—which Lewis himself recounted in his 1998 autobiography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.

Lewis took part in Lawson’s workshops on nonviolence at Clark Memorial United Methodist Church in Nashville and was soon putting the lessons into practice. By the time of the March on Washington, Lewis had participated in sit-ins at lunch counters in Nashville and joined the 1961 Freedom Rides to integrate bus travel. That landed him in Mississippi’s most notorious prison, Parchman Farm, for about a month.

Through these actions, Lewis emerged as a leader among younger civil rights activists. He was invited to speak at the March on Washington but was made to modify his speech as a result of objections from Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle. He still delivered the most militant speech of the day. Lewis’s compromise reflected his broader aim to get results without sacrificing his integrity.

In 1964, as chairman of SNCC, Lewis was a key figure in the planning of Mississippi Freedom Summer, the effort to register Black voters and open Freedom Schools in the state most openly opposed to the civil rights movement. In 1965, on a day that became known as Bloody Sunday, Lewis gained a new level of nationwide attention for the beating he and other civil rights demonstrators took at the hands of Alabama state troopers during a voting rights march in Selma.

A year later, however, Lewis found himself on the defensive for his role in the civil rights movement. At the end of 1965, the most important civil rights legislation of the decade—the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—had become law. But as the Vietnam War took more and more of the government’s resources, those in the civil rights movement began to concern themselves more with what these legal gains meant when Black Americans lacked jobs and were relegated to neighborhoods with poor schools. Within SNCC, Lewis was now identified as a member of the old guard. In a bitter election for chairman in May 1966, he lost to Kwame Ture (known at the time as Stokely Carmichael), who in his writing and speeches popularized the slogan Black Power. By December 1966, SNCC had voted to ask white members to leave the organization. It also gave up its commitment to nonviolence. “For me it’s always been a tactic and never a way of life,” Carmichael declared.

“It was very disappointing—after going to jail forty times, being beaten on the Freedom Ride in ’61, almost facing death during the attempted march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965,” Lewis later said. “So there I was, twenty-six years old and starting my life over, broke, with no job, no skills, no wife, no children, no place even to call home,” he wrote in Walking with the Wind. Lewis’s exile from SNCC eventually took him to New York, where he worked for the liberal Field Foundation, and then to a role in Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, before he returned to the South, where he worked for the Voter Education Project in Atlanta and spearheaded get-out-the vote drives in Black communities.

After an unsuccessful congressional campaign in 1977, Lewis won a seat on the Atlanta City Council in 1981. Five years later he was elected to Congress from Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District, a position he held until his death. The second half of Lewis’s public career was now beginning. Unfortunately, Meacham has only peripheral interest in this part of his life. He confines writing about it largely to the epilogue of His Truth Is Marching On. For anyone interested in the full John Lewis story, this is a significant gap. The transition Lewis made from protest to politics is central to why he, unlike many other SNCC leaders, continued to play an important role in American politics long after the 1960s.

“I came to Congress with a legacy to uphold,” Lewis later said. Throughout his career he sponsored 371 bills. He worked hard to secure approval for the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall and was the key figure in winning enactment of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007 and the Medicare and Medicaid Extenders Act of 2010. Equally significant, Lewis diverged from many Democrats in opposing the Gulf War resolution of 1991 and the notorious Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which led to massive increases in Black incarceration rates. The 2016 sit-in on the floor of the House that Lewis led in an effort to force the congressional Republican majority to bring a gun-reform bill to a vote was a sign of the frustration he often felt but also a reflection of the fact that the defeats he experienced at the hands of House Republicans never caused him to abandon his own legislative agenda.

In “The Last Integrationist,” a lengthy 1996 New Republic profile cited by Meacham, historian Sean Wilentz described how Lewis managed to keep his fervor while winning congressional allies for legislation he thought important. During the last decade of his life, Lewis was the recipient of multiple honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, but he did not turn himself into a civil rights relic living on past glories. In Georgia, he has a political heir in Stacey Abrams. After narrowly losing her bid in 2018 to be governor of Georgia in an election in which many Black people had difficulty getting on the voter rolls and casting ballots, Abrams created Fair Fight, a national organization that has already changed the state’s political landscape through its efforts to stop voter suppression.

Lewis remained optimistic about the future of the Black freedom struggle. “This feels and looks so different,” Lewis observed of Black Lives Matter a month before his death in July of this year. “It is so much more massive and all inclusive. There will be no turning back.”

Nicolaus Mills is professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964—The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America.