In an Axios interview in early August, President Trump declined to comment on the legacy of the recently deceased Rep. John Lewis, and even went as far as to imply that he had done more for Black Americans than the late leader of the South’s civil rights movement of the 1960s. (“Nobody has done more for Black Americans than I have.”) Jon Meacham, one of today’s foremost presidential biographers, gladly presents the case for Lewis in his new book, His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope. As he writes in the opening chapter:
“He was as important to the founding of a modern and multiethnic twentieth and twenty-first century America as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and Samuel Adams were to the creation of the republic in the eighteenth century. This is not hyperbolic. It is fact- observable, discernible, undeniable fact.”
From there, Meacham makes the argument that John Lewis was nothing short of a saint. And, really, who are any of us to dispute that claim?
Lewis, the son of an Alabama sharecropper, always knew that he wanted to be a pastor. As a child, he would preach to his father’s chickens for practice. But after hearing an early Martin Luther King, Jr., speech on the radio, he became less interested in preaching the heavenly gospel and more interested in promoting what postmillennial Protestants like Josiah Strong called the Social Gospel, a framework for applying biblical principles to the issues of modern society. He wanted to help people find enlightenment in this life, rather than the next.
As a young man, “the boy from Troy,” as Dr. King fondly called Lewis, attended workshops organized by the activist James Lawson on nonviolent resistance in the vein of Mahatma Gandhi. These workshops led to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a coalition of young civil rights activists that Lewis would become chairman of in 1963.
Lewis took the principle of nonviolence as seriously as anyone in the entire movement: he remained peaceful when he was beaten in Nashville participating in a sit-in at a segregated Nashville lunch counter, when he was locked inside a Nashville Krystal with an insecticide-filled fumigator running, when he was beaten by Klansmen during an attempt to desegregate buses with the Freedom Riders, when he was taken into custody by Birmingham’s notorious Bull Connor and abandoned with his fellow Freedom Riders without aid in Klan territory near the Alabama-Tennessee state line, when he was beaten in Montgomery during a Freedom Ride, when he was incarcerated at Parchman Farm for using a whites-only urinal in Jackson, and when he was nearly beaten to death by police at the Pettus Bridge in Selma.
In 1963, Lewis helped Dr. King organize the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. While Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is now the most iconic moment of the event, marchers at the time were more moved by Lewis’s defiant speech against incrementalism in Congress. He passionately pled for serious legislative action to be taken against all forms of racial discrimination.
Interestingly, sixty per cent of the American public disapproved of the March on Washington. So perhaps it’s not surprising that public opinions on the anti-racism protests of 2020 have been so divided. In this country, as with much of the world, anti-racism is and always has been met with resistance. And then, as now, that resistance often took violent forms.
The brutal 1964 murders of three Freedom Summer activists in Mississippi left many members of the movement dissatisfied with the nonviolent approach, beginning to believe that they might all be slaughtered by white supremacists if they didn’t begin to defend themselves. But neither Lewis nor King ever wavered in their commitment to nonviolence. They firmly believed that the path to overcoming racism was to let the world see which side behaved savagely.
But as what was arguably the most critical moment of the nonviolent movement unfolded as Lewis led the march across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, what he felt couldn’t have been vindication as he was clubbed unconscious. Yet that brutal assault in 1965 became a turning point for civil rights: President Johnson, in a direct response to the sight of peaceful protesters being pummeled on that bridge, signed the Voting Rights Act just a few months later, at last enfranchising Black Americans who had long been discriminated against in polling places across the South and, indeed, across the nation. (Unfortunately, the Supreme Court largely gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2015, and suppression of Black voters has escalated ever since.)
As Meacham writes:
“It is difficult to overstate Selma’s significance. It was true, as Johnson told the Congress and the nation, that the small Southern city had joined Lexington and Concord and Appomattox as a sacred place where the nation’s story had taken a decisive turn. But what sets Selma apart- what sets Lewis’s years of contributions during the movement apart- is that Selma became Selma not because of a conventional clash of forces but because the conventions of history were turned upside down. Lexington and Concord featured armed combatants; Appomattox is shorthand for the end of a civil war that claimed about three quarters of a million lives. Selma changed hearts and minds when Americans watched the brutal forces of the visible world meet the forces of an invisible one, and the clubs and horses and tear gas were, in the end, no match for love and grace and nonviolence.”
While Meacham’s point is well-stated, the reality of nonviolence’s lasting effect is a bit more nuanced. Soon after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the whole movement shifted. The Jim Crow era had effectively ended, but there were other, more opaque issues to contend with, like police brutality and systemic poverty. For these challenges, many activists and organizers distanced themselves from the nonviolent approach of King and Lewis, as perhaps first evidenced by the Watts riots in Los Angeles. Soon, John Lewis saw his more militant ally in the Freedom Rides, Stokely Carmichael, occupy the spotlight that he himself had once stood in, as Carmichael succeeded him as chairman of SNCC. By the summer of 1966, Lewis had bitterly accepted that his time on the frontlines of the movement had come to an end.
As a white man, Meacham could have fallen into an easy trap of completely dismissing the more militant philosophies of people like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. He could have chosen to paint in broad strokes, portraying the Black Power activists as short-sighted and heedlessly emotional. Luckily, Meacham mostly sidesteps the trap, fully acknowledging the credibility of their arguments, while refusing to speculate on which approach may have been more effective in places like Watts and Detroit in the late 1960s, or Jackson State in 1970.
In 1968, Lewis joined the presidential campaign of Robert Kennedy, whose vision for racial equality had surpassed that of both his late brother and Lyndon Johnson. While campaigning for Kennedy, Lewis received word that his beloved mentor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot and killed in Memphis. He later recalled reflecting at King’s funeral, “At least… the world still had Robert Kennedy.” Then, just two months later, four floors below Lewis at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on the night of the California primary, Robert Kennedy was murdered.
His Truth Is Marching On spends little time on Lewis’s life after those awful tragedies that profoundly affected him. Just a twelve-page epilogue is given to reflect on Lewis’s thirty-three years in Congress. That’s not because Lewis was in any way unremarkable as a legislator- to the contrary, he was often referred to as the “Conscience of Congress.” But that’s just not what Meacham is interested in. Though he never quite says it, one of Meacham’s ultimate points seems to be that Dr. King may never have accomplished nearly as much in the movement without John Lewis, and that Lyndon Johnson certainly wouldn’t have been the same champion for civil rights legislation without Lewis.
Perhaps the book’s thesis can best be summed up to a misquote of President Trump: Nobody has done more for Black Americans than John Lewis.