Today is the 72nd birthday of civil rights pioneer John Lewis. His is a story is deeply woven into liberation history in the United States. A son of rural Alabama, Lewis grew up on a small farm without plumbing or electricity in the Jim Crow south. He wanted to be a preacher. When he was a teenager, he heard a young pastor from Montgomery, Martin Luther King, Jr., preach a radio sermon entitled, “Paul’s Letter to the American Christians.” It impacted Lewis deeply. With his educational opportunities limited, Lewis attended the American Baptist Seminary in Nashville, where he became close friends with two classmates, Bernard Lafayette and James Bevel. They received the formative nurture of two of their teachers in particular: Reverend Kelly Miller Smith, and James Lawson. Lawson offered workshops in nonviolent social action, which the three attended with students from other local colleges, including Diane Nash and Marion Barry. The sessions were rigorous, and deep spiritual discipline developed among the participants. The class put their learning into action with the lunch counter sit-ins which rocked the segregated community in Nashville and had repercussions nationwide. Arrested for the first time, Lewis would reflect later: “I had never had that much dignity before.” His life was becoming an inspired translation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
John Lewis was one of the original members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). If we would want to study the dynamics of forgiveness embodied in a social movement, we could do no better than to study and learn from the American Civil Rights Movement, and specifically, from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. While the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Dr. King had a higher public profile, it was the young people of SNCC who regularly immersed themselves in suffering communities, accompanying, organizing, nurturing local leadership, absorbing reactive violence, staying over the long term. They engaged both in nonviolent direct action and dangerous voter registration efforts in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. They established community with one another and practiced a painstaking, deeply hopeful democratic process. The lives of people like Lewis, Robert Parris Moses, mentors Ella Baker and Septima Clark, and countless others are inspiration for liberation movements today. Lewis was SNCC Chairperson for three years.
In 1961, Lewis was among the original “Freedom Riders” integrating interstate bus transportation in the deep south. He and fellow Freedom Rider Jim Zwerg were severely beaten by a mob in the Birmingham Bus Terminal. Lewis was nevertheless among those who continued the Freedom Rides into Mississippi, being arrested and together giving “Paul and Silas” type witness in the brutal conditions of Parchman Prison.
Though Martin Luther King’s, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is the dominant memory of the 1963 March on Washington, the strongest and most radical speech was given by John Lewis. You can access the text here: www.studentactivism.net/2011/08/28/john-lewis/ It is worth the read. Lewis gives powerful voice to people at the grassroots levels (buried from dominant view) who struggled daily against injustice, who put their bodies and selves on the line in faithful witness. His message was painfully honest, and thus, full of hope. It was controversial and right up to its delivery there were arguments inside the Lincoln Memorial with leaders who wanted it changed. As I read it again, I realize that the speech was considered so militant because it challenged the nation’s impoverished imagination about the assertive nature and transformative power of nonviolence.
The following year, in 1964, Lewis was among those planning and carrying out Freedom Summer in Mississippi. In 1965, he was in Selma, Alabama in the voting rights effort there, as Washington grappled with a National Voting Rights Bill. Though cooperation between SNCC and SCLC had broken down, Lewis stood in the breach, and joined Hosea Williams in leading marchers across the Pettus Bridge from Selma on the road to Montgomery. The picture above was taken at the foot of the bridge, seconds before Alabama troopers viciously attacked the nonviolent demonstrators. Lewis, in the overcoat and backpack, would suffer a fractured skull. The nation watched on television , horrified, and the incident became a scene reminiscent of Jesus in Capernaum in Mark Chapter One, as the powers that oppress people and distort life are called out into the daylight where everyone can see them for what they are. The Voting Rights Act passed shortly thereafter.
John Lewis’s life of faith and service has continued. Since 1986, he has served as U.S. Congressional Representative from the Fifth District in Georgia. He has been a tireless advocate for peacemaking, human rights, and access to health care for all people. Let’s give thanks on this, his birthday, for the poured out life he continues to live among us.
For those interested in John Lewis and SNCC, I highly recommend David Halberstam’s amazing book, The Children (Random House 1998). Also recommended is John’s autobiography, Walking With the Wind (Harcourt Brace, 1998).