Freedom Rider. Leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Along with Bayard Rustin one of the organizers of the 1962 March on Washington. The victim of a skull fracture at Bloody Selma three years later. Pioneer in the practice of “redemptive suffering.” Thirty-four years representing parts of Atlanta in the House. Jamelle Bouie is correct: there was no fight for Black civil rights in which John Lewis wasn’t commanding or strategizing. Eulogists will paint him today as a Happy Warrior type, but if Lewis considered life a struggle — a battle — this son of a sharecropper understood the converse too: to relax is to yield; to settle is to accept the forces of reaction and evil. In the last decade of Lewis’ life, he saw the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act and the election of Donald J. Trump. He addressed both these phenomena in words indicating he had no interest in the marmoreal treatment of statutes in the park.
Before a crowd of thousands, reading from a script revised after Martin Luther King, Jr. and other colleagues thought it too pugnacious, Lewis said:
By the force of our demands, our determination and our numbers,” he told the cheering throng that August day, “we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy. We must say: ‘Wake up, America. Wake up!’ For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.
What chills me reading this excerpt is its prescience and its applicability. The South still remains a seat of revanchism. Democracy remains under attack. God in the way this man whom his family called Preacher is distorted into a demiurge symbolizing resentment.
Study the mug shot, happily tweeted by Lewis when the moment demanded it. I love the defiance in that keen unyielding expression and the strength of his mouth. Here was a man prepared to get handcuffed again. And again.
Finally, because pain, like anger, is an energy, I ogled conserva-Twitter this morning to learn what its best minds thought of Lewis. Obsequiousness ruled, surprisingly; the rancor came from the nameless choads who considered Lewis unworthy of praise because he supported access to abortions. To type these characters that form into words and coalesce into sentences is to revel in a historical ignorance so complete as to bury oneself in a crypt. Lewis understood the casualness with which white men raped Black women in the South and the hundreds of thousands of unacknowledged children born of these violations. Giving women this crumb of power over their destinies may seem strange to conservative judges and justices who raze Supreme Court decisions on reproductive liberties for the sake of the unborn so long as they can deny the child brought to term and its mother the charity from the federal government they deserve; but conservatives care more about the potential persons whom they don’t have to see than the ones standing in front of them, especially if the woman giving birth suffered for her transgression. For decades, Lewis understood how fairness isn’t even distributed equally.