I didn’t understand John Lewis at first
I once wanted the civil rights leader to be angry, rather than forgiving
I have always admired John Lewis. But early on, I have to admit, I held something back. His courage was unquestioned. His vision was unwavering. He shed blood for many of the rights that I, my family and every African American enjoy today.
Yet, I sometimes felt a pang of suspicion when I heard Lewis lauded as the conscience of the Congress. It was the same when I read about his annual sojourns with some of his congressional colleagues to his home state of Alabama, where in 1965 he and 600 other marchers were savagely assaulted by state troopers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge for daring to assert their rights as citizens.
The compliments, of course, were fitting and the tours were no doubt instructive. But it sometimes felt like the plaudits for the saintly Lewis, who died at 80 late Friday months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, flowed too easily. And when the praise was offered by people who gave comfort to those who once denied Lewis’ humanity or never supported his legislative priorities, it came off as insincere.
My apprehension was rooted in the mistaken notion that Lewis was not angry enough. Why did he not demand revenge for the unspeakable racism he fearlessly confronted? How could he accept an apology from former Alabama governor George Wallace, a longtime segregationist who ordered the infamous Bloody Sunday attack on the bridge? Or forgive the pathological Bull Connor, the former public safety commissioner in Birmingham, Alabama? Why would he forge a relationship with former Klansman Elwin Wilson, who was part of a mob that in 1961 beat down Lewis and other Freedom Riders outside the whites-only waiting room at the Rock Hill, South Carolina, bus station?
But over the years my ambivalence melted into reverence as I came to better appreciate the power of Lewis’ grace. It armed him with undeniable moral authority that allowed him to change minds, and hearts. His willingness to forgive, along with his bravery and contempt for injustice were among the sturdiest pillars of his greatness.
Wilson apologized to Lewis years after his crimes and sought to atone for them. Lewis accepted his apology, went on television with the former Klansman and even hosted him at his congressional office. After Wilson died in 2013, Lewis reflected kindly on his example.
“Elwin Wilson shows us that people can change,” Lewis said. “And when they put down the mechanisms of division and separation to pick up the tools of reconciliation, they can help build a greater sense of community in our society, even between the most unlikely people.”
Lewis was far more than a forgiving soul. He was a leading figure of a generation of civil rights warriors who stared down violent racism while holding fast to what had to seem like a distant dream: having our country move closer to its promise of equality. He took his Atlanta-area seat in Congress in 1987, but his place in history was secure long before then.
Lewis grew up in rural Pike County, Alabama, where he would practice delivering sermons to the chickens he tended in the family coop. He would sometimes amuse himself by playing fireball, a game that involved drenching a tightly wrapped bundle of rags in kerosene, lighting it with a match, and quickly tossing it into the sky.
Segregation was absolute. In his 1998 memoir, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, he recalled encountering just two white people — a mail carrier and a traveling merchant — by the time he was 6. His parents were sharecroppers and as a kid he picked cotton himself, work he hated because it was both backbreaking and exploitative. Sharecroppers often made next to nothing because of the inherent risks of farming as well as the unfair contracts they were forced to work under.
It is the kind of unfairness that Lewis spent his life fighting. Inspired by the Montgomery bus boycott, he became a civil rights leader by the time he enrolled at Fisk University. Lewis was not a flashy leader who gave fiery speeches and oozed charisma. Instead, he got in the trenches and stayed there. He helped organize sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee, and became one of the original Freedom Riders who risked their lives to desegregate interstate bus travel. Not only was he brutally beaten on several occasions, he also was arrested about 40 times during the civil rights movement, and at least five times since being elected to Congress.
Lewis was just 23 and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee when he was selected as a speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. It feels ironic now, but his speech became a point of contention for organizers because its early drafts were deemed too impatient and too angry.
“The night before the march, Bayard Rustin [the march’s lead organizer] put a note under my door,” Lewis told me in 2013, as the nation was celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the march. It said, “There is some discussion about your speech, some people have a problem with your speech.”
There were heated negotiations back and forth, but in the end, Lewis toned down the speech, mainly out of respect for two other leading figures in the march, A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr.
“I couldn’t say no to those two men,” he told me.
A year after the march, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted. And a year after that, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law, just a few months after Lewis was among those severely beaten on Bloody Sunday.
Lewis was as responsible as anyone for making those groundbreaking laws possible. In 2011, as President Barack Obama awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he lauded the urgency Lewis always felt to take tangible action.
“There’s a quote inscribed over a doorway in Nashville, where students first refused to leave lunch counters 51 years ago this February,” Obama told a crowd assembled in the East Room of the White House. “And the quote said, ‘If not us, then who? If not now, then when?’ It’s a question John Lewis has been asking his entire life.”
Afterward, Lewis marveled at the experience. “If somebody told me one day I would be standing in the White House, and an African American president would be presenting me the Medal of Freedom, I would have said, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” Lewis told reporters. “ ‘Are you out of your mind?’ ”
The award represented the kind of seismic change for which Lewis sacrificed so much. And there were other examples. Lewis met former Alabama governor Wallace for the first time in 1979. By then, Wallace used a wheelchair, and engaged in a public campaign for forgiveness from African Americans he had oppressed for years. True to form, Lewis said that while he could never forget the hatred Wallace unleashed and his “political opportunism,” he could forgive him.
“George Wallace should be remembered for his capacity to change,” Lewis wrote years later in The New York Times. “And we are better as a nation because of our capacity to forgive and to acknowledge that our political leaders are human and largely a reflection of the social currents in the river of history.”
I now know that attitude was not evidence of weakness, but instead proof of Lewis’ enduring strength.