John Lewis Risked his Life for Justice

His willingness to do so was essential to the quest for civil rights.


New York Times, July 17, 2020

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Credit…Illustration by Nicholas Konrad/The New York Times; photograph by Nashville Police Department


Representative John Lewis, who died Friday at age 80, will be remembered as a principal hero of the blood-drenched era not so long ago when Black people in the South were being shot, blown up or driven from their homes for seeking basic human rights. The moral authority Mr. Lewis exercised in the House of Representatives — while representing Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District for more than 30 years — found its headwaters in the aggressive yet self-sacrificial style of protests that he and his compatriots in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee deployed in the early 1960s as part of the campaign that overthrew Southern apartheid.

These young demonstrators chose to underscore the barbaric nature of racism by placing themselves at risk of being shot, gassed or clubbed to death during protests that challenged the Southern practice of shutting Black people out of the polls and “white only” restaurants, and confining them to “colored only” seating on public conveyances. When arrested, S.N.C.C. members sometimes refused bail, dramatizing injustice and withholding financial support from a racist criminal justice system.

This young cohort conspicuously ignored members of the civil rights establishment who urged them to patiently pursue remedies through the courts. Among the out-of-touch elder statesmen was the distinguished civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall, who was on the verge of becoming the nation’s first Black Supreme Court justice when he argued that young activists were wrong to continue the dangerous Freedom Rides of early 1961, in which interracial groups rode buses into the Deep South to test a Supreme Court ruling that had outlawed segregation in interstate transport.

Mr. Marshall condemned the Freedom Rides as a wasted effort that would only get people killed. But in the mind of Mr. Lewis, the depredations that Black Americans were experiencing at the time were too pressing a matter to be left to a slow judicial process and a handful of attorneys in a closed courtroom. By attacking Jim Crow publicly in the heart of the Deep South, the young activists in particular were animating a broad mass movement in a bid to awaken Americans generally to the inhumanity of Southern apartheid. Mr. Lewis came away from the encounter with Mr. Marshall understanding that the mass revolt brewing in the South was as much a battle against the complacency of the civil rights establishment as against racism itself.

By his early 20s, Mr. Lewis had embraced a form of nonviolent protest grounded in the principle of “redemptive suffering”— a term he learned from the Rev. James Lawson, who had studied the style of nonviolent resistance that the Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi had put into play during British colonial rule. The principle reminded Mr. Lewis of his religious upbringing and of a prayer his mother had often recited.

In his memoir “Walking With the Wind,” written with Michael D’Orso, Mr. Lewis explains that there was “something in the very essence of anguish that is liberating, cleansing, redemptive,” adding that suffering “touches and changes those around us as well. It 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 human conscience.”

The essence of the nonviolent life, he wrote, is the capacity to forgive — “even as a person is cursing you to your face, even as he is spitting on you, or pushing a lit cigarette into your neck” — and to understand that your attacker is as much a victim as you are. At bottom, this philosophy rested upon the belief that people of good will — “the Beloved Community,” as Mr. Lewis called them — would rouse themselves to combat evil and injustice.

Mr. Lewis carried these beliefs into the Freedom Rides. The travelers described their departing meal at a Chinese restaurant in Washington as “The Last Supper.” Several of the participants had actually written out wills, consistent with the realization that they might never make it home. No one wanted to die, but it was understood that a willingness to do so was essential to the quest for justice.

The Ku Klux Klan did its best to secure such a sacrificial outcome. It firebombed a bus at Anniston, Ala., and tried unsuccessfully to burn the Freedom Riders alive by holding the exit doors shut. “Walking With the Wind” describes the especially harrowing episode that unfolded on the Freedom Ride bus on which he arrived in

The terminal seemed nearly deserted, he writes, but “then, out of nowhere, from every direction, came people. White people. Men, women and children. Dozens of them. Hundreds of them. Out of alleys, out of side streets, around the corners of office buildings, they emerged from everywhere, from all directions, all at once, as if they’d been let out of a gate . … They carried every makeshift weapon imaginable. Baseball bats, wooden boards, bricks, chains, tire irons, pipes, even garden tools — hoes and rakes. One group had women in front, their faces twisted in anger, screaming, ‘Git them niggers, GIT them niggers!’ … And now they turned to us, this sea of people, more than three hundred of them, shouting and screaming, men swinging fists and weapons, women swinging heavy purses, little children clawing with their fingernails at the faces of anyone they could reach.”

Mr. Lewis’s fellow Freedom Riders tried in vain to escape the mob by scaling trees and terminal walls. “It was madness. It was unbelievable,” Mr. Lewis recalled “… I could see Jim Zwerg now, being horribly beaten. Someone picked up his suitcase, which he had dropped, and swung it full force against his head. Another man then lifted Jim’s head and held it between his knees while others, including women and children, hit and scratched at Jim’s face. His eyes were shut. He was unconscious …. At that instant I felt a thud against my head. I could feel my knees collapse and then nothing. Everything turned white for an instant, then black.”

“Burn Jim Crow to the Ground”

Mr. Lewis clashed again with the elder statesmen of the movement when they prevailed on him to tone down a speech he was about to give at the March on Washington in 1963. Thrown out were the harshest criticisms of the John F. Kennedy administration’s civil rights bill as well as a fiery passage threatening that the movement would “march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground — nonviolently.”

Yet even the softened speech was radical for the context. At a time when civil rights leaders were commonly referring to African-Americans as Negroes, the Lewis speech used the term Black: “In the Delta of Mississippi, in Southwest Georgia, in the Black Belt of Alabama, in Harlem, in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and all over this nation the Black masses are on a march for jobs and freedom.”

To the dismay of many, the 23-year-old Mr. Lewis described the movement as “a revolution,” appealing to all who listened “to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until a revolution is complete. We must get in this revolution and complete the revolution.”

Mr. Lewis carried his faith in the power of nonviolence into the fateful Selma, Ala., voting rights demonstration — in March of 1965 — that was soon named Bloody Sunday to commemorate the vicious attack that state troopers waged on peaceful marchers. Mr. Lewis suffered a fractured skull and was one of 58 people treated for injuries at a hospital.

The worldwide demonstrations that followed the brutal police killing of George Floyd underscored the extent to which many people need visual evidence to grow outraged over injustice that is perpetrated all the time outside the camera’s eye.

A television broadcast of the violence meted out by the police on Bloody Sunday worked in the same way. It generated national outrage and provided a graphic example of the need for the Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law that summer.

The linchpin part of the law required certain states and parts of states to seek federal permission before changing voting rules. This seemed almost a godsend to the civil rights cohort and at least a partial repayment for the lives of the many men and women who had died in pursuit of voting rights.

Soon after the Supreme Court crippled the act in 2013, states began unveiling measures limiting ballot access. At the time of the decision, Mr. Lewis wrote that the court had “stuck a dagger into the heart” of a hard-won and still necessary law. With his customary eloquence, he urged Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act, describing the right to vote as “almost sacred” and “the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democracy.”

The passing of John Lewis deprives the United States of its foremost warrior in a battle for racial justice that stretches back into the 19th century and the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments. Americans — and particularly his colleagues in Congress — can best honor his memory by picking up where he left off.