Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., center right, is escorted into a mass meeting at Fisk University along with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chair John Lewis, left, and Lester Mckinnie, center, in Nashville, Tenn., in 1964.Bettmann Archive/Getty ImagesJuly 21,
When John R. Lewis died recently, part of America’s conscience passed with him. With all the turbulence, chaos, lies, and antipathy toward race that is endemic to the Trump administration it makes every day difficult. A case in point was yesterday in Kenosha, WI when Trump refused to acknowledge the shooting of Jacob Blake by police and his subsequent paralysis or his support for Kyle Rittenhouse, the seventeen year old AR-15 carrying killer of two men. For me this has led to despair as I do not see a way out of America’s current condition with a “serial igniter” when it comes to race. Trump and his acolytes blame everyone but their own policies and rhetoric for where we are as a country, and one can only imagine what will become of our racial divide should he be reelected.
Watching and listening to the outpouring of respect for Lewis by the American people because of his message of non-violence and hope for the next generation was always reassuring, but now he is gone. However, the texture of his life’s work is on full display in Jon Meacham’s latest work, HIS TRUTH IS MARCHING ON: JOHN LEWIS AND THE POWER OF HOPE. Mecham’s latest is not a full scale biography like his previous subjects, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and George H.W. Bush, but a more nuanced rendering of the development of Lewis’ personal theology and his contribution to the American Civil Rights Movement dating to the 1950s. Mecham’s new book is somewhat a sequel to his wonderful book THE SOUL OF AMERICA: THE BATTLE FOR A BETTER ANGELS where he expresses an optimism for America’s future that I believe has been shattered by events in Portland, Kenosha, and the rise of the alt-right white supremacist movement in this country. We are bombarded each day by bifurcated politics and have lost the leadership of a great man.
In true Meacham fashion his newest narrative history relies on extensive research and the application of incisive analysis as the keystone to his examination of Lewis’ life work. Mecham points out his goal was to present an appreciative account of the major moments of Lewis’ life in the Civil Rights Movement, “of the theological understanding he brought to the struggle and the utility of that vision as America enters the third decade of the twenty-first century amid division and fear.” Mecham’s opening chapter entitled “Overture” returns the dying Lewis suffering from pancreatic cancer to Selma, AL last March to celebrate the events of fifty-five years ago at the Edmund Pettis Bridge where he was almost beaten to death by a white mob supported by police which frames the stage for his remarkable life’s work and accomplishments, but also his optimism and love in the face of hatred.
For Lewis growing up in the segregated world of Troy, AL the church become his comfort and restorative zone and from an incredibly young age he fashioned himself as a preacher. He possessed a great imagination and quickening faith from biblical themes of resurrection, of exile, and deliverance shaped and suffused Lewis’ life from its earliest days. Even as a boy he would preach to his “congregation of chickens” located in his “chicken coop”who he would minister to each day. He would experience the vividness of the Jim Crow order and its segregation realizing how evil it was from an early age. Once he was exposed to an integrated society at his Uncle’s home in Buffalo, he realized how difficult it was to reconcile the teachings of Jesus and segregation.
The watershed moment(s) of his life was his exposure and later meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King. For the first time King’s words introduced a vision of “non-violence, religiously inspired protest, to a way of seeing the world in terms of bringing the temporal in tune with the timeless.” Lewis was not concerned with the streets of heaven, but the streets of Montgomery and the way black and poor people were treated.
Stokely Carmichael speaking at Garfield High School, Seattle, 1967
There were a number of individuals who influenced Lewis’ intellectual development. Apart from Dr. King, the “social gospel” concepts of Walter Rauschenbusch, the strategy of non-violence of Reverend James M. Lawson, along with the murder of Emmett Till, and the work of Rosa Parks all impacted him greatly. Mecham does a workman like job weaving Lewis’ upbringing and later life within the context of American history. His intellectual and emotional development applied to upheavals in America are clearly explored and provides a roadmap into what Lewis thought and what type of man he would become.
Lewis saw integration as a key step forward toward bringing the world into a closer tune with the gospel. Meacham allows the reader to accompany Lewis on his life’s journey including experiencing the approach of peaceful protest met by violence, arrest and imprisonment in Nashville, TN, Oak Hill, SC, Jackson, MS, and Birmingham and Montgomery, AL. in the mid to late 1950s. Along the way we meet the Reverend Ralph Abernathy of Birmingham’s First Baptist church, James farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Medgar Evers, Field Secretary for the NAACP before his murder by Klansmen in Jackson, Diane Nash, a key organizer of sit-ins and Freedom Rides, and of course the likes of Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Conner, George Corley Wallace, and John Patterson. There were also those that did not go along with Lewis’ “Beloved Community.” Men like Stokely Carmichael who believed that systemic racism would not be defeated by non-violence – he favored radical action after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights bill that led to Lewis’ removal as Chair of the SNCC; and Malcom X who favored a more militant approach and denigrated some of Lewis’ ideas, though later on they came much closer to each other’s ideals.
Meacham presents a balanced approach integrating theology, socio-economics, and political components that Lewis brought to the Civil Rights Movement providing insights into what made Lewis tick and made him such a social and political force of nature. 1963 would be a watershed for Lewis’ development and the Civil Rights Movement. Meacham provides intricate details of events surrounding protests in Birmingham and Jackson culminating in the March on Washington on August 28th of that year where Lewis at age twenty-one was the youngest speaker. At the age of twenty-three after his participation in the Freedom Rides and a stint at Parchman Farm, the notorious Mississippi prison, Lewis was elected Chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC led the growing militancy of the Civil Rights Movement provoking violent resistance against their cause that pushed a reluctant federal government to embrace the cause of Black rights. By 1965, the Johnson administration gained the passage of legislation prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations and voting destroying the legal foundations of Jim Crow. 1965 was also the year that Lewis suffered a fractured skull at the hands of the Alabama State Police at the Edmund Pettis Bridge as they marched for voting rights in Selma, AL, an event known as Bloody Sunday. SNCC leadership would pass from Lewis to Stokely Carmichael in 1966 whose Black Power slogan was the antithesis of Lewis’ vision of a nationwide integrated community. But the SNCC would flounder due to FBI harassment and internal disagreements and passed from the scene by the late 1960s. By 1968 Lewis would join Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign and after Kennedy’s assassination he would go on to be elected to Congress where he would serve for more than thirty years.
Much of Meacham’s work relies heavily on Lewis’ memoir, WALKING IN THE WIND and as the author points out he did not set out to write a full scale biography. Meacham reminds readers that if they wanted a full scale biography they must wait until Rutgers historian David Greenberg completes his own work. But in the interim, Meacham’s work should hold the fort for those with an interest in a remarkable man.
(John R. Lewis, booked for one of his many arrests)