Friday, July 31, 2020

John Lewis's unwavering democratic faith

John Lewis 1964
From the Library of Congress
Three of the top six opinion pieces on the New York Times’ smartphone app this morning explored the political legacy of the late civil rights activist/congressman John Lewis. Neither the Wall Street Journal nor the Washington Post had a single opinion piece on Lewis similarly positioned. That’s too bad. Every American, left, right, and center should be able to agree on the citizenship values Lewis embodied: peaceful resolution of differences, empathy for political rivals, a willingness to forgive, and a faith in the fundamental decency of fellow human beings. The opinion editors of the Journal and the Post may be too busy prosecuting a culture war that seems to reject these values and assumptions to bother to reflect too much on Lewis’s legacy.

After a bit more hunting, I did find two letters-to-the-editor in the Journal, which concisely capture Lewis’s democratic (small-d) spirit.

One, by Jesse Uman, a former congressional aide, told the story of a visit to Lewis’s office by Elwin Wilson, one of the youthful thugs who threw the first punches at Freedom Riders in Rock Hill, South Carolina in 1961. According to Civil Rights Movement chronicler Taylor Branch, Wilson and his buddies, who used the Greyhound bus station as a hangout, took a break from their pinball tournament when Lewis and the Freedom Riders walked through the “whites only” entrance. Young men like Wilson, Branch wrote, “had become the scourge of the sit-in movement” a year earlier. When Lewis, who had maneuvered himself in front of the line of Freedom Riders, refused to retreat to the “Colored entrance,” one of the hoodlums—apparently Wilson—“threw a punch that caught Lewis in the mouth, making the first loud pop of fist against flesh on the Freedom Ride.” Wilson’s punch would be the first of many.

Ulman described the meeting of Wilson and Lewis in 2009:

Rep. Lewis and Mr. Wilson shook hands, and as they did Rep. Lewis embraced Mr. Wilson. They hugged. Their eyes filled with tears and there was silence. The congressman and Mr. Wilson spent over an hour together talking, being interviewed and looking at civil-rights memorabilia. Mr. Wilson apologized; Rep. Lewis forgave. He had an unwavering faith in the goodness in all humans. The congressman used to say that “every baby is born with love in their heart.”

Mr. Wilson told Rep. Lewis that he couldn’t take hate and violence to the grave with him, and that he didn’t want his grandchildren to remember him as a racist and man of violence. Rep. Lewis told him that “hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”

The other letter writer, James Nobles, said of Lewis:

Never giving into hate, he advocated for change through peace and unity, something that has been lost in today’s social discourse.

And while one might disagree with some of Rep. Lewis’s political positions, no one of moral character could ever deny the goodness of this man. . . . The best way we can honor Lewis is to discard our anger, resign from divisiveness, forgive others, treat everyone with dignity and respect and stand as one America. 

Sunday morning, while I was driving through the beautiful countryside of New Hampshire’s White Mountains on a sunny day, Krista Tippett’s 2018 interview with Lewis came on my radio and I thought, I wish every American was listening to this now. Somehow, a man who had been thrown in jail 40 times by the democratically elected legal authorities of various American states for trying to exercise his most basic Constitutional rights could retain both a patriotic love of country and an unwavering faith in democracy. Speaking of his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, he said:

When we were sitting in, it was love in action. When we went on the freedom ride, it was love in action. The march from Selma to Montgomery was love in action. We do it not simply because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s love in action. That we love our country, we love a democratic society, and so we have to move our feet.

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