By Peniel Joseph
Representative John Lewis, the civil rights leader who marched with Martin Luther King Jr and was brutalised by police in Selma, Alabama, during the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” demonstration for voting rights, brought the movement to the floor of the House of Representatives last week.
He reaffirmed his status as not just a civil rights legend, but also as one of the greatest living American politicians of his generation.
Lewis, who represents Georgia in Congress, revived the civil rights tactic of nonviolent civil disobedience to protest the lower house’s failure to hold a vote on gun-reform legislation in the wake of the killing of 49 people in Orlando, Florida, two weeks ago. The sit-in stunned the Republican majority, including House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who decried the demonstration as little more than a “publicity stunt”.
The roughly one million people who watched the proceeding live on social media, after the House leadership shut off the chamber’s C-SPAN cameras, begged to differ. With one sweeping motion, the civil rights movement had returned to front and centre in America’s national political discourse. Social media and the Twittersphere exploded with frenzied discussions of what, exactly, these events portended.
It was far from the first time Lewis played the role of David against insurmountable opposing forces. Before taking on the National Rifle Association and Republican politicians, Lewis proved instrumental in toppling the old order of Jim Crow and white supremacy across the South.
Raised in a shotgun shack in rural Alabama, Lewis grew up admiring King and became a devout religious student and activist in the early sit-in movement. As chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the early 1960s, Lewis emerged as a quietly humble firebrand, soft-spoken with an occasional stutter, yet fiercely determined to stamp out America’s long history of racial and economic injustice.
Lewis drew close to King. The young Freedom Rider cleaved to King’s practice of peaceful protest even after white racists inflicted a vicious beating in 1961. The congressman is now the last surviving speaker from the August 1963 March on Washington, which culminated with King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Lewis’ original speech that day was amended for being too radical. He threatened to bring a nonviolent army to blaze through Southern racism, like General William Tecumseh Sherman had burned through Georgia during the Civil War.
Two years later, Lewis, armed with a backpack, overcoat and moral courage, led the protestors who faced down Alabama State troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The mounted police attacked the peaceful demonstrators with truncheons and other weapons. Lewis almost died from the beating he received.
Though King is rightfully viewed as the movement’s leading political mobiliser, Lewis served an equally crucial role as a student leader. He stood as a true believer in America’s capacity to transform from a nation founded in racial slavery to one rooted in racial justice.
Younger members of Congress initially proposed the sit-in, which the 76-year-old veteran activist eagerly embraced. In a larger context, this represented the Black Lives Matter moment for Democrats in the House, eager to challenge a majority in Congress that seems tone deaf to strong public support of gun safety, criminal justice system reforms and combatting racial and economic inequality.
The devil is always in the details, however. Civil-liberties activists and experts balked at proposed Democratic legislation to place suspected terrorists on no-fly lists, as an anti-democratic measure that would enhance racial profiling. Others wondered where the outrage and energy exhibited during the sit-in have been for the deaths of black women and children at the hands of law enforcement.
Lewis’ example helps illuminate the high stakes of the 2016 presidential election, despite some glaring political and policy limitations. The moral outrage over House Republican intransigence is linked to a constellation of issues that connect racial and economic injustice, the fight for a living wage and decent housing, the push for immigration reform and the end to anti-Muslim hysteria, as well as movements to end racial segregation and inequality in public schools and communities.
The lessons from the civil rights movement are twofold. First, that justice in America comprises policy solutions connected to an expansive moral vision of citizenship and human rights. And second, that ordinary people have the power to topple empires and transform the world.
Lewis served as a participant and keen observer during some of the most extraordinary decades in American and world history. He helped ignite momentous change as the United States was dragged kicking and screaming into a new era, one that has ultimately led to the historic black presidency of Barack Hussein Obama.
Lewis might be considered the anti-Trump: A brilliant yet humble leader who, even in the face of extraordinary odds, never panders to American’ worse impulses but instead inspires the best in us.
The movement he helped shape was, in the face of contradictory evidence, optimistic and couched its faith in the indomitable will, unspoken generosity and boundless love and compassion of ordinary people’s struggle for justice.
Lewis should be applauded for reminding Congress – and a new generation of activists – that, by standing in resistance against injustice together, America’s best days remain ahead of us.
Peniel Joseph is professor of history at the University of Texas-Austin. His most recent book is Stokely: A Life