John Lewis gave us more than his body. He gave his soul. As a late teen, around 1960, from the small town of Troy, Alabama, Lewis decided he would not bend to the racist south. He was jailed more than 20 times. Beaten bloody many times, including two fractured heads courtesy of local racist police departments. He was left unconscious on the floor of the Montgomery, Alabama bus station. No ambulance was called. His sin? As a Freedom Rider trying to establish equal rights in interstate bus travel.
In thinking about this I thought about the U.S. Congress that most obituaries focus on. John was one of the few of today's Congresspeople who risked his life for humanity.
The majority in Congress are are inauthentic lawyers, public charlatans who triumph if they are the best money raisers from lobbyists. In contrast as a civil rights worker John spent time in the Alabama State prison ~ not a risk free existence. And certainly not like today’s politicians of little character.
I only met John once, during the legendary Selma, Alabama marches. What struck me was he was the least fancy leader you could imagine. His speeches were intelligent and educational, but he never raised soaring visions like Martin Luther King. His organizing work was steady and non-dramatic. Because it was clear, over and over, that he would risk his life. So civil rights workers believed him. He was elected chairman of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), the toughest and most fearless civil rights group.
In Selma, the white leadership condoned violent expressions of racism as a means of “keeping the Darkies” in their place. Note the historical photo I shot with the “I hate N…” which I’m not sure Facebook will even print today?
I remember the Freedom House on a quiet street in the Black section. White yahoos would careen down the street in their pickups, blasting away with rifles and shotguns to terrorize civil rights workers. After a while, when the working Blacks of the neighborhood armed themselves and and began firing back, the terror raids stopped. Of course the Selma and Alabama State police actively supported the racists.
The Civil Rights movement was trying to march to Montgomery, the Alabama State Capitol, to present a petition of grievances. The authorities vowed to stop this peaceful march at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. People still remember images of police dogs tearing into the marchers. Here John Lewis was singled out, beaten severely with police clubs and given another concussion. Again no ambulance. He was carried to a Black church nearby.
After the intense era of civil rights confrontations, John later ran for Congress in Atlanta. His chief opponent, and the favorite, was Julian Bond: a handsome, articulate and also brave, ex-civil rights worker. But in an upset the man without flash, steady and authentic John Lewis won because everyone knew he could be trusted.
So the eulogies I read all stress the long-term progressive Congressperson. But what I respect is the young Alabama boy who took the existential leap in a land of shadows despite his most probable future: jail or death. But then John and other civil rights workers, like the Black Lives Matter movement today, shook the racist status quo and inspired a majority to promise a better way of living.
P.S. Edmund Pettus, named on the famous bridge, was a Civil War confederate general and later the head of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. Time to reclaim history and make it the John Lewis bridge.
Jeffrey Nightbyrd Shero © 2020
Jeffrey was the original editor and publisher of the Austin Sun. He also created The Rat, America's first underground newspaper in New York City and was an editor of the Rag in Austin. He currently lives in Austin and has a talent agency, Acclaim Talent.