John Lewis, at the age of 80, has died, and one result is remembrances of his life, his courage, his Christian faith, his sacrifices and his dedication to nonviolence as one of the foremost civil rights leaders of the 20th and 21st centuries. Peace and love resided in his heart, it is said, and the Black Lives Matter protestors should listen, should forsake arson, vandalism, theft, injuring others, spreading ruin and defeating their cause.
The group’s adherents should instead become John Lewis.
Lewis lived through times when the abuse and oppression of Black Americans was much harsher, crueler and painful than today, times when none could even dream of having a Black president, for instance. Especially in the South, Black people could not vote, ride on a bus with whites, eat in regular restaurants, stay in most hotels, go to public schools with whites or get into white colleges. Segregation ruled, and there were physical threats to deal with.
Even as a very young man who first wanted to be a minister, Lewis became a leader of a civil rights group and befriended Martin Luther King Jr., protested and demonstrated and was time and again beaten up. He had his skull fractured. He had his face bloodied. He took risks that could have gotten him killed. He was arrested 45 times.
But when he learned of the rise of the Black power movement and its acceptance of violence, he said no, no, no, that is not right. Jon Meacham, a superb journalist and author who has written a biography of him, says he was deeply of the faith, that he was led by the Gospels. He believed meekness would inherit the earth, and no, he was not always meek, but love was Lewis’s foremost strategy: kindness, calmness, joy, humility, patience and putting the good of others first in everything he did. Guess what? On issue after issue after issue, he and others like him won, getting major, liberating legislation enacted into law.
Perfection hardly arrived, of course, and he himself was scarcely perfect, such being a deprivation of the human condition. But he also served for 17 terms in the House of Representatives, he fought for the right as he saw it and still helped make things happen. What we need now is more like him at a time when it looked as if a grand new moment was upon us, a time when racism might receive a cleansing like never before.
The nation saw the excruciating killing of George Floyd and so very, very many were emotionally wounded, but within days we had protesters setting fire to police stations, to a block-long apartment complex under construction and to numerous small businesses.
Since then, hundreds upon hundreds of police officer have been injured, with three federal officers just maybe blinded for the rest of their lives.
People have been killed. Statues have been toppled. Graffiti has become a substitute for literacy.
The substantially richer, ideologically supremacist truth-haters have minimized all of this, often belittled the desperate need for religion and demanded politically correct, evasive language if you are going to keep your job. The consequence will not be what the protesters are seeking.
Here are some of John Lewis’s final words to the protesters as reported by Vanity Fair magazine: “I know your pain, your rage, your sense of despair and hopelessness.
Justice has, indeed, been denied for far too long. Rioting, looting, and burning is not the way. Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Stand-up. Vote. Be constructive, not destructive.
History has proven time and again that non-violent, peaceful protest is the way to achieve the justice and equality that we all deserve.”
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.