The last of the Mohicans
The death, this month, of African-American Congressman, John Lewis – the last surviving member of the youthful speakers at the iconic August 1963 March on Washington – marks the distinctive passing of a golden age of sacred struggle. This was the generation of determined, dedicated, and disciplined activists who sacrificed their lives for black freedom and equality, and taught the United States (US) how to live up to its founding ideals. This was also America’s greatest generation who gave birth to the evocative lexicon of sit-ins, Freedom rides, “redemptive suffering,” non-violence, and “beloved community.”
John Robert Lewis was born on 21 February 1940 in rural Alabama in the American South to sharecropping parents who raised 10 children. His parents later grew cotton, corn, and peanuts on their own small farm. John lived in a home without electricity or plumbing, confronting racism early on, when he was denied access to a local library. His early calling was evangelism, and his family nicknamed him “Preacher”. He famously acted as a poultry-preacher, proselytising to his feathered flock as he tended the family chicken. Lewis became inspired to join the civil rights struggle when he heard a young Marin Luther King, Jr. preaching on the radio during the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycotts.
He wrote to King asking for help to enroll in his local whites-only university, and the civil rights leader sent him a bus ticket to visit him in Montgomery in 1958 where he was recruited to the struggle. Lewis studied at the black Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville. His parents opposed his activism, cautioning him to avoid trouble and accept the world as it was: theirs was an approach of passive non-resistance. Lewis was renowned for his humility, integrity, and fearlessness. He developed an unshakable faith in the justness of his cause and a staunch belief in the ultimate triumph of his “holy crusade”. He often invoked King’s “beloved community” as a Utopian vision of a world without poverty, war, and racism. In 1961, he was among the first 13 activists who embarked on a freedom ride: a bus tour that sought to desegregate inter-state transport to, and public facilities in, the American South. The freedom riders suffered harassment by white mobs and police in South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi.
Lewis was a co-founder of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) – with activists like Diane Nash, Marion Barry, Julian Bond, and Stokely Carmichael – which worked closely with King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Both adopted Gandhian “passive resistance” tactics of seeking to turn the enemy’s hate against it. Both also sought to transform Jesus’s love ethic into a powerful weapon to disarm the enemy. SNCC staged sit-ins and sought to desegregate public amenities across apartheid America. Its members regularly suffered beatings, and some were murdered.
Lewis himself was arrested 40 times between 1960 and 1966. A 23-year old Lewis cemented his reputation in civil rights folklore when he was one of the “Big Six” – with Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young Jr., Philip Randolph, James Farmer Jr., and Roy Wilkins – to organise the 1963 March on Washington. Renowned as a firebrand, Lewis reluctantly succumbed to the pleas of older leaders to remove criticisms of the John F. Kennedy administration from his speech. Shortly before King delivered his seminal “I have a Dream” speech, Lewis asserted to the 200,000-strong crowd: “By the force of our demands, our determination and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy.” He was, however, best known for attempting to lead, with Hosea Williams, the March 1965 protest from Selma to Montgomery on “Bloody Sunday”. About 600 peaceful protesters were attacked with teargas, clubs, and whips by Alabama state-troopers on horseback. Lewis’s skull was fractured in an attack immortalized in the 2014 film, Selma. This attack was widely televised across American television screens as part of the staged dramaturgy of the epic civil rights struggle, helping to galvanise the passage of the Voting Rights Act five months later. Despite these landmark legislative victories, Lewis recognised that non-violence was losing its allure among the black masses.
As he later noted “The road of non-violence had essentially run out.” Within this more radicalised context, Lewis was replaced as chair of SNCC in 1966 by the fiery Trinidadian-American apostle of “Black Power”, Stokely Carmichael. At 26, Lewis had peaked, and was burned out. He headed a Voter Education Project and completed his bachelor’s at Nashville’s Fisk University in 1967. A year later, Lewis met and married Lillian Miles, a teacher who became a life-long confidant until her death in 2012. They had a son, John-Miles Lewis, together. In 1968, Lewis worked on Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, and was present when Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles: a few months after Lewis’s “older brother”, Martin Luther King’s, own martyrdom. Lewis eventually worked in the Jimmy Carter administration’s Action programme in the late 1970s, before becoming an Atlanta City councilor in 1981.
Five years later, he fought an acrimonious battle for Georgia’s Democratic House of Representatives seat with his former SNCC comrade, Julian Bond. The contrast between both could not have been starker: the favoured Bond was a light-skinned, articulate, and urbane heir of wealthy parents, while Lewis was a dark-skinned, rural farm-boy with a Southern drawl. The hustings saw Lewis portray himself as a “work horse” to Bond’s “show horse”, and he accused his wealthy opponent of drug use and corruption, also belittling his civil rights record. Lewis won narrowly, and went on to serve in Washington D.C. for the rest of his 33 years on earth, being re-elected 16 times. In the US Congress, Lewis quickly earned a reputation for being “the conscience of Congress”, though his legislative record was sparse. The former grassroots firebrand had become institutionalised in a body renowned for tawdry deal-making and pork-barrel politics. Lewis opposed Bill Clinton’s destructive 1998 “Welfare Reform” bill that plunged many black families into penury. He also condemned US military spending and its illegal 2003 Iraq intervention. Lewis further championed South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s; supported the restoration of democracy to Haiti in the 1990s; opposed the genocidal campaign by Sudanese jihadists in Darfur in the 2000s; and closer to home, campaigned for gay and immigration rights in the 2010s.
He boycotted George W. Bush’s inauguration in 2001 in protest at Supreme Court meddling, and boycotted Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017 in protest at Russian meddling. The war-mongering Bush later somewhat made amends by actualising Lewis’s consistent championing of a National Museum of African American History in 2003, which opened in Washington D.C. 13 years later. The race-baiting Trump – whom Lewis described as “racist” – dismissed the Congressman as “All talk, talk, talk – no action or results.” Before America’s first black president, Barack Obama, gave his presidential inauguration speech in 2009, he dramatically went over to hug Lewis for having paved the way for his presidency.
In awarding Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom – America’s highest honour – in 2011, Obama noted that “Generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind.” John Lewis lived long enough to see the US Supreme Court’s 2013 reversal of some of the gains of the Voting Rights Act, as well as to see the recent “Black Lives Matter”-led global protests. Having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last December, he succumbed to his final battle at the age of 80. Two years before, Lewis had cautioned a new generation on twitter that “Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get into good trouble.” Lewis’s was America’s greatest generation, and he was the last of the great Mohicans.
Professor Adebajo is Director, University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, South Africa.
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