Peniel Joseph


1960s-era civil rights leader is inspiring a new generation

John Lewis was a disciple of Martin Luther King and marched on Washington in 1963. Last week, he led a sit-down protest in Congress, says Peniel Joseph

1960s-era civil rights leader is inspiring a new generation

JOHN Lewis, the civil rights leader who marched with Martin Luther King Jr and who was brutalised by police in Selma, Alabama, during the 1965 ‘Bloody Sunday’ demonstration for voting rights, brought the movement to the floor of the US 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 non-violent 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 a “publicity stunt.” The one million people who watched 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 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 was 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 viciously beat him 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’ speech that day was amended for being too radical. He threatened to bring a non-violent 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. Lewis almost died from the beating. Though King was 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 on racial slavery to one rooted in racial justice.

Younger members of US Congress proposed the sit-in, which the 76-year-old eagerly embraced. This was 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 reforms and racial and economic equality.

The devil is in the details. Civil-liberties activists balked at proposed Democratic legislation to place suspected terrorists on no-fly lists. They considered it an anti-democratic measure that would enhance racial profiling.

Others wondered where the outrage of the sit-in had been for the deaths of black women and children at the hands of law enforcement.

Lewis’ example illuminates the high stakes of the 2016 presidential election, despite glaring political and policy limitations. The moral outrage over House Republican intransigence is linked to 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 participated in some of the most extraordinary decades in American history. He helped ignite momentous change, as the United States was dragged kicking and screaming into a new era, one that has led to the historic black presidency of Barack Obama.

Lewis might be considered the anti-Trump: A brilliant yet humble leader who, even in the face of extraordinary odds, never panders to Americans’ worse impulses, but, instead, inspires the best in us.

Lewis should be applauded for reminding the US Congress — and a new generation of activists — that, by standing against injustice together, America’s best days remain ahead of us.

  • Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, and professor of history at the University of Texas-Austin.

He can be followed on Twitter at @penieljoseph

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