Remembering John Lewis

Remembering John Lewis

In a moment when Black Lives Matter has succeeded in bringing longstanding police abuses to public attention, Lewis’s legacy has never been more visible.

John Lewis speaking at the 1963 March on Washington (Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

Looking back on the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 two decades later in an essay for Dissent, John Lewis found himself still moved by his memory of that period in his life. “Most of all there was an all-pervading sense that one was involved in a movement larger than oneself, almost like a Holy Crusade, an idea whose time had come,” he wrote.

Lewis never stopped believing that the civil rights movement was sacred, and he felt the same way about the current Black Lives Matter protest. Watching the video of George Floyd’s death made him cry, he acknowledged, but he was also encouraged by the response to Floyd’s death. “It was very moving to see hundreds of thousands of people from all over America and around the world take to the streets, to speak up, to speak out, to get into what I call ‘good trouble,’” Lewis told CBS’s This Morning.

In 1964, Lewis was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and already a civil rights veteran at just twenty-four. After leaving his home in Troy, Alabama, and entering American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, Lewis quickly rebelled at the constraints he was expected to follow in the South he was born into in 1940. He put his life on the line by participating in Freedom Rides and lunch counter sit-ins in defiance of Jim Crow laws.

As SNCC chairman, Lewis was instrumental in the planning for Freedom Summer, an effort to register Black voters and begin Freedom Schools in the state most violently opposed to the civil rights movement. An amalgam of civil rights organizations led by the SNCC recruited college students to join them in Mississippi in an undertaking designed to draw the attention of the nation. “If we can crack Mississippi, we will likely be able to crack the system in the rest of the country,” Lewis hoped. The following year, on a day that became known as Bloody Sunday, the beating Lewis and other demonstrators took at the hands of Alabama State Troopers in Selma on a voting rights march became national news, played over and over on television.

In a year in which the Black Lives Matter movement has succeeded in bringing longstanding police abuses to public attention, Lewis’s legacy has never been more visible. What has not, unfortunately, gotten the attention it deserves is the political vision accompanying Lewis’s activism. That political vision is, however, very much present in his writing, particularly in the speech he sought to make at the 1963 March on Washington but never got to deliver as he intended.

Lewis did not get the chance because Archbishop Patrick J. O’Boyle of Washington, D.C., found that Lewis’s text was too radical and threatened to withdraw from the march program unless Lewis modified his text. O’Boyle won the day, but a half century later, one cannot help but wish that Lewis, under pressure from the senior march organizers to heed O’Boyle and be a team player, had given the speech he originally wrote.

Lewis’s original speech was one the country needed to hear as an accompaniment to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Read today, Lewis’s text is still prescient. He set the tone early on when he complained of the shortcomings of the civil rights legislation the Kennedy administration was proposing. “In good conscience, we cannot support wholeheartedly the administration’s civil rights bill, for it is too little and too late,” Lewis declared. “There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality.”

The changes the country required could not be limited to incremental ones, Lewis argued. “We are now involved in a serious revolution,” he contended. What particularly worried him was that neither Democrats nor Republicans were thoroughly committed to fundamental racial change: “We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence.”

Those who counseled patience had no sense of what Black Americans were enduring, said Lewis. Patience is a “dirty and nasty word,” he declared. “We want our freedom, and we want it now,” he insisted. The corollary to this argument for rapid change was that the civil rights movement needed to mobilize its supporters on a large scale and take matters into its own hands. “We all recognize,” he wrote, “the fact that if any radical social, political, and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about.” In other words, the civil rights movement needed to commit itself to more direct action once it gained sufficient strength.

“The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington,” he predicted. In language that especially upset Archbishop O’Boyle, Lewis delivered a peroration that evoked the Civil War: “We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground—nonviolently.” The results, Lewis believed, would be transformative. “We shall fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy.”

Lewis’s closing words, written in all capital letters, were “WAKE UP AMERICA!” How long Lewis expected America to take before it woke up he did not say, but as he showed both in the 1960s and in a political career as a Georgia Congressman that began in 1987 and lasted until his death, Lewis did not tire when change did not go as he wanted. In 2001, he boycotted George W. Bush’s inauguration because he believed the Supreme Court had arbitrarily stopped a recount of the Florida vote that would have given the election to Al Gore. In 2016, he led a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives to protest inaction on gun control. In 2017 he boycotted Trump’s inauguration, arguing it was illegitimate due to Russian interference in the election. Getting arrested at least forty-five times during a lifetime of activism only seemed to renew Lewis’s political stamina. To the end, he remained a relentless giant.

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