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A Steady Force for America’s Redemption

I met this American hero in 1995. If anything, he was even more impressive up close than from a distance. 

By Sean Wilentz

Tagged Civil Rightspolitics

John Lewis was my friend as well as my hero. His passing at this moment of exceptional hope and exceptional dread is terribly sad, but it also makes all the clearer why he was such a singular figure in our history.

I first got to know John in 1995. An editor at one of the opinion journals I wrote for asked me to pick any African American political figure and write a profile. Having long admired John, the choice came instantly, which began a year, on and off, of close contact with him as well as his political team on Capitol Hill and in Atlanta.

We spent much of our early time together talking about his boyhood in Pike County, Alabama, and his work in the civil rights movement. As it happened, he had begun working on a memoir of the movement and his leadership of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a project that would yield one of the finest accounts of that time, his book Walking with the Wind. Having tapped into his own past, he shaped his stories with freshness and exactness, from how he hypnotized the chickens on his family’s sharecropping farm to the contents of the backpack he wore on Bloody Sunday in Selma. 

But the present kept intruding. It was a fraught time for John. In October of 1995, Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam planned to hold what he called the Million Man March on Washington, D.C., an appeal to African American pride and manly responsibility that had galvanized Black communities across the country.  The uplifting spirit was palpable: I could see it in the faces of my own Black friends and colleagues who, disregarding Farrakhan’s noxious politics, planned to attend. John was under tremendous pressure from his Atlanta constituents as well as from leaders including Jesse Jackson, Marion Barry, and Rosa Parks to endorse the march if not actually participate in it.

I remember a private staff meeting in John’s office in the Cannon House Office Building—he didn’t seem to mind my sitting in—when he asked for a report on the politics of the situation back home. Betraying nothing about his thinking, he listened to how he would take a big hit inside his district if he didn’t go along, that he might even have to face a primary a year from now. It was not the first time he would have been cast as insufficiently militant. He’d paid the price before, when Stokely Carmichael, picking up the “Black Power” cry, ousted him as the chair of SNCC in 1966; and this time he wasn’t a movement leader but an elected official, whose survival depended absolutely on the opinion of his district. 

Expressionless, John asked everyone in the room what they thought he should do. (Always the egalitarian, he even asked me.) One by one, we pleaded with him: Don’t do it, you can’t do it, Farrakhan opposes everything you stand for, your entire vision of a beloved community across race and creed. He argued back: Wasn’t this spectacle about pride more than politics? Hadn’t Dr. King stood up, in his very last campaign, for ordinary Black workers in Memphis organized under the slogan “I AM A MAN”? Wasn’t that the real message of the march? 

Later, every member of the staff I spoke with said that the congressman had known his own mind all along, that he was just testing the room, trying to see where we stood. If so, it was quite a compliment to them. But either way, Lewis’s refusal to surrender to racial divisiveness, no matter how seductive and supposedly empowering the message, distinguished his politics from the opportunism of those who criticized his supposed disloyalty to the race. “I follow my conscience, not my complexion,” he declared. He did not, in the end, attend the march.

My article on John finally appeared in 1996, when he won re-election unopposed, but that was only the beginning of our relationship. Two years later, when I happened to be living in Washington on a fellowship, I kept up with him through the Clinton impeachment saga. It’s hard to recall, but into the early fall of 1998, many liberals, in the press as well as in politics, were skittish of supporting the President too strongly, enraged at what they considered his irresponsible behavior. John saw through all of that as political hokum: Impeachment, he told me, had been plotted right down the hall in the office of right-wing Texan Tom DeLay, and it had nothing to do with morals or perjury or anything of the kind. 

The Republican Party, he explained to me, had changed utterly thanks to his fellow Georgian, House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Under Gingrich, the GOP had begun turning into a corrupt and destructive force, interested not at all in the public good but rather in wreaking the destruction of the Democratic Party and with it of liberalism itself. Having brought down Democratic Speaker Jim Wright in 1989, Gingrich and Delay and the rest of the Republican zealots had set their sights on bumping off a Democratic President.

Here was John’s cold political side, one he had honed since his unhappy departure from SNCC in 1966, one he was unafraid to show, whether it meant cutting a deal to help his district or turning some of the Republicans’ tactics against them, as when he led a charge against Gingrich’s ethics abuses that eventually led to a resounding House reprimand of the Speaker and a $300,000 fine.  

As it happened, I became involved in the impeachment that fall, organizing a historians’ petition that argued the drive was unconstitutional, then testifying before the House Judiciary Committee that history would track down and condemn those representatives who supported impeachment for partisan reasons. For the day I testified, John gave me the use of his office as my headquarters, his phones at my disposal, his staff, now my friends, helping me deal with the press. When the committee adjourned, I went back to John’s office, to hear some of the liberal pundits on TV start to criticize my words as condescending. John came in, embraced me hard, and told me I’d done good. It was all the support I could have hoped for. What he didn’t know, though I later told him, was that the line I’d used about history tracking people down had come from one of our interviews, when he said that he joined the movement not for any special reason of his own but because history had tracked him down.

After that, although we kept in touch, I saw much less of John, calling on him now and then just to say hello, or for him to give me an interview on the latest political developments for one political journal or another, or to offer my condolences when his wife Lillian passed at the end of 2012. Then in 2016, a book of my historical essays appeared, on how great social change in America came only with the convergence of egalitarian ideals and pragmatic politics. When finishing the manuscript, I realized that behind what I thought was my sharp insight was really John’s entire career. 

Apart from Andrew Young, who became a successful congressman and mayor of Atlanta, few of the courageous men and women, young and old, who had put their lives on the line to end Jim Crow had made the transition to elective politics as auspiciously as John Lewis. In a prescient essay written in 1965, the great movement leader Bayard Rustin explained how the future of the American freedom struggle would depend on how the civil rights movement made the transition from protest to politics. Unless the movement turned what Rustin called its “revolutionary character” toward a broader social vision, “to develop functional programs with concrete objectives” into a broad progressive coalition—to take up, that is, the burdens of power—its purpose would be thwarted. John Lewis, the egalitarian protester who became an egalitarian politician, devoted his life to doing the work that Rustin called for, without chic posturing or showiness or fashionable pessimism, his charisma resting in his tireless effort to embody the beloved community he foresaw. 

Having dedicated my book to John, I traveled to Washington to hand-deliver a copy. We were both older, he stouter, me grayer, but it was as if nothing had changed, no time had passed. We talked about politics some, me somewhat incredulous that the Republicans would actually nominate Donald Trump, he more hard-headed, telling me that Trump was no accident or departure, that he was the culmination of everything he’d been fighting against all his life, and that we should fight with all our might because he might just win.

It was the last time I saw him. When word broke in December that he was stricken with the disease that has killed him, I did not want to intrude but tried to get word through to say how much I loved him. Then, the traumatic events of 2020 began to unfold, sparking a glorious, unprecedented anti-racist outpouring—an awakening, John announced, that amazed even him—emerging in tension with the kind of pessimism and mistrust that led to his being cast aside by SNCC in the late 1960s. 

Throughout, I’ve tried to take instruction as well as encouragement from his undaunted example, resisting bitterness and cynicism, a steady force for America’s redemption. In our conversations a quarter century ago, John talked about living through the horror of 1968, and of how, when his mentor Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered, he pushed through his searing pain with the comforting thought that at least Bobby Kennedy was still alive, which would remain true for just two short months. John Lewis was the figure who carried on that succession, and now he too is gone. It’s all left up to us, and there is so much left to do, starting, in John’s spirit, with the immediate business, the election in November.

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Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University and the author of, most recently, No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation's Founding.

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