Remembering John Lewis

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In the wake of John Lewis’ death, many have reflected on the life and legacy of the heroic Civil Rights leader and Congressman. Here are a few of the reflections.

Barack Obama wrote:

America is a constant work in progress. What gives each new generation purpose is to take up the unfinished work of the last and carry it further — to speak out for what’s right, to challenge an unjust status quo, and to imagine a better world.

John Lewis — one of the original Freedom Riders, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, leader of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Member of Congress representing the people of Georgia for 33 years — not only assumed that responsibility, he made it his life’s work. He loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise. And through the decades, he not only gave all of himself to the cause of freedom and justice, but inspired generations that followed to try to live up to his example.

Considering his enormous impact on the history of this country, what always struck those who met John was his gentleness and humility. Born into modest means in the heart of the Jim Crow South, he understood that he was just one of a long line of heroes in the struggle for racial justice. Early on, he embraced the principles of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience as the means to bring about real change in this country, understanding that such tactics had the power not only to change laws, but to change hearts and minds as well.

EJ Dionne offered a tribute to John Lewis—in his own words:

John Lewis was militant and gentle, a fighter and a peacemaker, brave and self-effacing, confident and humble. He was a listener whom others wanted to hear. He was a man of infinite faith and hope who nonetheless saw and experienced the profound shortcomings, even evils, of our world and our country. He was a partisan when he needed to be, but a unifier at all times.

In thinking about Lewis’s achievement, I found that the words coming to mind were not those of a politician or an organizer, but a well-known injunction from a pope. “If you want peace,” Paul VI said in 1972, “work for justice.” This was the commitment that drove Lewis’s life….

“I’m deeply concerned that many people today fail to recognize that the movement was built on deep-seated religious convictions, and the movement grew out of a sense of faith faith in God and faith in one’s fellow human beings. From time to time, I make a point, trying to take people back, and especially young people, and those of us not so young, back to the roots of the movement. During those early days, we didn’t study the Constitution, the Supreme Court decision of 1954. We studied the great religions of the world. We discussed and debated the teachings of the great teacher. And we would ask questions about what would Jesus do. In preparing for the sit-ins, we felt that the message was one of love the message of love in action: don’t hate. If someone hits you, don’t strike back. Just turn the other side. Be prepared to forgive. That’s not anything any Constitution say[s] … about forgiveness. It is straight from the Scripture: reconciliation.”…

“Voting access is the key to equality in our democracy. The size of your wallet, the number on your Zip code shouldn’t matter. The action of government effects every American so every citizen should have an equal voice. … We all count! It doesn’t matter whether you’re black, or white, Latino, Asian-American or Native American. We are one people. We are one family. We all live in the same house – the American house.”

Adam Serwer wrote about John Lewis as an American Founder:

The Alabama that John Lewis was born into in 1940 was a one-party authoritarian state. Forty years before Lewis was born, the white elite of Alabama, panicked by a populist revolt of white and Black workers, shut Black men out of politics in a campaign of terror, fraud, murder, and, finally, disenfranchisement….

Most of America’s Black population, when Lewis was born, lived in a white republic, where they were driven into poverty, disenfranchised, and denied basic civil and political rights through violence, custom, and law. More than one-third of Alabama’s population when Lewis was born was denied the right to vote….

Vivian and Lewis fought and bled for the cause at sit-ins, in the Freedom Rides of 1961, when police and the Ku Klux Klan worked hand in hand to brutalize protesters trying to desegregate public buses, through the March on Washington in 1963 and the Selma-to-Montgomery marches in 1965, where Lewis had his skull cracked open by Alabama state troopers. Without these men and their allies in the civil-rights movement, the maxim in the Declaration of Independence that all are created equal would be but words on paper written by slave masters. Absent their sacrifice, their bravery, and their brilliance, America would remain a herrenvolk republic, not a nation for all its citizens….

The Third American Republic, the only one to sincerely pursue the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the first true attempt at interracial democracy in American history, was founded by people including Vivian, Lewis, Diane Nash, and Coretta Scott King. They are part of a third generation of American leaders who elevated the universal truths in Christian doctrine and the words of the 1776 Founders, and shamed the nation into deciding that these ideals meant something. The Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act remade America into something it had never been, bringing the nation closer to what it fancied itself to be.

Michael Gerson wrote about the centrality of his faith:

Yet Lewis sided with King in embracing a distinctly Christian vision of the “beloved community.” Lewis believed in the promise of interracial democracy. He was an integrationist at a time when many young activists were turning to separatism. And he believed that the movement for civil rights “was based on the simple truth of the Great Teacher: love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Lewis’s faith was a source of personal strength in the face of cruelty. It also provided a framework for his activism. Like King, he did not believe in inevitable progress. Lewis did not think that those who exercise unjust power would give up their privileges easily. But the willing embrace of sacrifice in a good cause could, in his view, break down the resistance to justice. Redemptive suffering, Lewis wrote, “opens us and those around us to a force beyond ourselves, a force that is right and moral, the force of righteous truth that is at the basis of all human conscience.”

Lewis was addressing the primary decision that all of us face in pursuing our ideals. Is the answer to hatred the mobilization of equal and opposite hatred? Or does love have the peculiar power to break and change the hardest hearts? Lewis staked his life, again and again, on the second option.