Reflections on a Conversation with John Lewis
These are the stakes: To make a world in which all of God’s children can live,
or to go into the dark.
We must either love each other or we must die.
• Lyndon B. Johnson
In the summer of 2010, I received a great honor: an audience with the legendary civil rights leader and congressman, John Lewis. I met him in his Capitol Hill office, which was a virtual shrine to the bygone Civil Rights era that made him famous and beloved.
I interviewed him as part of my research for this book. Excerpts from the interview appeared in the preface to Volume 1: The War in America: One Black Man’s Battles Against Racist and Abusive Law Enforcement. As I wrote in that preface, after “10 years working as a reporter for highly respected African American weekly newspapers in St. Louis, Missouri and Washington, DC, and ultimately for the Washington Post newspaper, I interviewed more than 500 people—some famous, some not so famous, some not famous at all and some infamous. However, as an independent writer, my interview with Mr. Lewis was my most memorable interview yet.”
In the preface to this volume, I will describe the thoughts and feelings I had during and after my interview with this great American.
Sitting near the Honorable John Robert Lewis at an intimate circular table in his office, I got a sense of what makes him a unique political and social leader. He speaks with the intensity of a seasoned soldier, battle-tested, but not battle-weary. Heroic in his battles on the front lines of non-violent confrontations against American racism, he is the highest ranking and most decorated officer in what is left of a once-powerful civil rights army. He is fighting now to make a difference in the lives of a new generation. His weapons are love, humility and courage.
Speaking to a room full of black young men on Martin Luther King Day in 2017, he said: “I say to you as young men, the future leaders … of this nation, the future leaders of the world: You must never, ever hate. The way of love is a better way.” With emphasis, he added: “The way of peace is a better way.” Lewis made the speech in Miami, Florida before the 5000 Role Models of Excellence organization. Quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis told the impressionable young men, “‘Hate is too heavy a burden to bear.’”
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today
– Marvin Gaye
Lewis does not seek to punish vicious, racist law enforcers, such as those who brutalized him while he was leading the historic Civil Rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama. Instead, he seeks to uplift them, to appeal to their higher nature and to bond with them.
At age 76, he is a living martyr who has dedicated his life to the cause of freedom.
According to the Biography.com website, “Born near Troy, Alabama, on February 21, 1940, John Lewis grew up in an era of segregation. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., he joined the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. Lewis was a Freedom Rider, spoke at 1963’s March on Washington and led the demonstration that became known as ‘Bloody Sunday.’ He was elected to Congress in 1986 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.”
His press secretary Brenda Jones stated on Lewis’s official congressional online bio that Lewis “has been called ‘the conscience of the U.S. Congress,’ and Roll Call magazine has said, ‘John Lewis … is a genuine American hero and moral leader who commands widespread respect in the chamber.’”
Despite his accolades, there was an absence of phoniness and pretension in the man. There is nothing fake about him. His persona is humble but strong. Built like a stocky half-back with the heart of linebacker, he is fiercely sincere in his beliefs. He said his mission as a public servant is to help in every way possible to protect not only his constituents but every single American, every immigrant seeking to rise up, every human being in this country.
“I am here to help my fellow man in any way that I can,” he said.
About midway through our half-hour discussion, I felt a tingling of conversion coming over me. So plainspoken were the words he uttered, yet so profound. He stated that he believed the world’s greatest conflicts, including the conflicts between blacks and whites; between Israel and Palestine, and between ISIS and the United States of America, could be resolved peacefully.
My goal in interviewing Congressman Lewis was to engage him in a conversation about black manhood and self-defense, issues that I delve into in this volume of The War in America.
I wanted to challenge him with the idea that after generations of humility, it was time for the black man to become more aggressive. I argued that there has not been much movement in the non-violent Civil Rights movement in years, and it has failed to defend black people from racist and abusive law enforcement. Isn’t it time to at least talk about the possibility of using physical resistance against those who unjustifiably assault us? Law enforcement abuse of power transmutes into acts of war that diminish and/or terminate the lives of too many of us. Must black people continue to take this abuse? Isn’t it our responsibility to defend ourselves? Isn’t it time for us to fight power with power—with violence, if necessary.
To support my argument, I had developed a theory that black people have the legal authority to bear arms against government abuse. I had based my theory on facts—facts that I will discuss in this book.
I knew John Lewis was a logical person who was not afraid to face the facts, even if they ran opposite to his way of thinking. So, I expected him to agree that that decades of law enforcement abuse and injustice constituted a state of war—a real war, not a metaphorical one.
In a sense, he did agree with my position. He agreed that it is legitimate to describe the conflict between police and black people as war, “because of the casualties it creates and the terrible psychological and physical scars it leaves on so many.”
However, he did not agree that blacks should use violence to defend themselves. “Violence is never the answer. I’m a firm believer in that,” he said. “Violence is wrong.”
We wrestled a bit on this topic. I tried to draw him deeper into my way of thinking. Instead, he drew me into his. I told him, “Countless people around the world have successfully resorted to violence to overthrow their oppressors. Sir, you cannot dispute that fact.”
He did not blink. “That may be the case, but was it necessary?”
He makes an excellent point. Violence is not necessary to end oppression, per se. According to research conducted by scholars such as Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth it is the least effective way to create change.
In an academic report entitled “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” Stephan and Chenoweth stated that “[F]rom 2000 to 2006 organized civilian populations successfully employed nonviolent methods including boycotts, strikes, protests, and organized noncooperation to challenge entrenched power and exact political concessions in Serbia (2000), Madagascar (2002), Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004–05), Lebanon (2005), and Nepal (2006).” Their investigation, which examined about 300 worldwide uprisings and civil disobedience campaigns over the course of more than 100 years, revealed that “[M]ajor nonviolent campaigns have achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns.”
Non-violence “works a ‘change of heart’ in the opponent …”
Still, I could not accept that Congressman Lewis could be so passive or naïve that he would believe that violence is never, ever, ever necessary, no matter what.
This man was beaten by Alabama state troopers in 1967 as he and other civil rights non-violent warriors humbly marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to protest for voting rights for blacks. The law enforcers attacked him so vociferously they fractured his skull. Yet, Lewis never sought revenge.
On n March 6, 2015, Lewis recounted this experience on NPR’s Democracy Now!
He recounted that “I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. I had a concussion at the bridge … My legs went out from under me. I felt like I was going to die. I thought I saw death. All these many years later, I don’t recall how I made it back across that bridge to the church.”
Lewis was hospitalized, but after his release he went right back into the battle for freedom, unarmed. He told NPR’s Juan Gonzalez: “… [S]omehow and someway, you have to keep going. You go to a hospital, you go to a doctor’s office, you get mended, and you get up and try it again.”
During the Civil Rights movement, Lewis was arrested more than 40 times for committing crimes like sitting at segregated lunch counters. His first arrests occurred between 1961 and 1963 in Nashville, Tennessee. The mug shots the racists cops snapped remained buried in police department records for more than 50 years. Nashville mayor Megan Berry surprised Lewis when she presented him a copy of a composite of those mugshots during an awards ceremony in his honor on November 19, 2016.
Yahoo News ran an Associated Press story about the poignant discovery. The story included a copy of the black-and-white mugshots.
I studied the mugshots. One of them is a headshot of him looking directly at the camera. His eyes tell two different stories. The left eye is fiercely focused and bespeaks his determination to keep fighting for justice, even if that means racist cops will put him through this indignity over and over and over again.
The right eye is tired and subdued. It says, “I am hurting.” It looks like it is about to drop a tear. It draws me in and makes me sad. I can feel his hurt. He is hurting deeply, not only for himself but also for his broken country—a freedom-loving nation that denies freedom to him and those who look like him.
If he had let his hurt stop him, John Lewis would not be John Lewis. He is still hurting for America. Still, he will always be a soldier. Soldiers get hurt and keep right on soldiering.
During my interview with him, I felt that this indominable, unintimidated, hardheaded man really meant every word he spoke to me. He was not putting on a well-rehearsed act; he was not posing or posturing; he was not feeding me syrupy soundbites or self-serving quotes. The man was sincere.
Still, I had hoped that he would put his reputation aside just for a moment. I wanted him to wink at me to signal that he wanted to go off the record and tell me something like: Yes, brother, I wish I could smash the heads of these stupid racists ruining this country, but I can’t. So I’m sticking with this non-violent song and dance, you feel me.
No, this Congressional leader was not going to handle this interview my way.
It was his way or no way. And so, I gave in. I looked at the violence v. non-violence debate from his vantage point. He made me actually believe for a few energizing moments that deadly conflicts truly can be resolved without bloodshed, and that persistent non-violent struggle will ultimately create peace among all mankind. He made me imagine that animosities between sworn enemies can truly be eliminated without one side trying to dominate or destroy the other side.
My imagination melted into a dream—a dream in which I saw all human beings at peace with each other. What a wonderful dream.
But it was no dream to him. Peace is the principle by which he lives.
A pure pacifist, he argues that everyone on earth must work for peace. “We have to come together. There is no other way to have peace. We are human beings. We can do it if we want to do it. If we really want peace, we will stop fighting and start listening to each other. We must come together. If we don’t, we’re doomed.”
Six years after I interviewed the Congressman, America was dragged into a tumult of divisiveness by the racially-charged rhetoric of a wealthy and charismatic white man named Donald J. Trump, who used the dirty firestorm he created to thrust himself into the Oval Office.
Lewis condemned the unapologetic presidential candidate’s race-baiting diatribes.
He and the president-elect Trump wrestled each other with a “war of words” less than a week before Trump’s swearing in. The self-sacrificial civil rights champion said that Trump would not be a “legitimate president,” because of Russia’s alleged attempt to fix the presidential election to favor Trump over his rival Hillary Clinton. The acid tongue, race-baiting billionaire fired back in a missive of Tweets, claiming that Lewis was “all talk” and “no action.”
Quickly making a political pivot, Congressman Lewis took to social media to denounce Trump’s denouncement of him. Being on Lewis’ massive email distribution list, I received in my inbox a high energy, battle-mode message from Lewis that read in part: “Edward — Today, Donald Trump attacked me on Twitter. Edward, I’ve been beaten bloody, tear-gassed, fighting for what’s right for America. I’ve marched at Selma with Dr. King. Sometimes that’s what it takes to move our country in the right direction. We refuse to stop now. We’re not done fighting for progress. We’re ready for the next four years.”
His message continued with: “I remember when segregation was the law of the land that ordered our society in the Deep South. The forces of law and order in Alabama were so strong that to take a stand against this injustice, we had to be willing to sacrifice our lives for our cause.”
Lewis started throwing verbal bombs at Trump well before the quirky business leader was elected to run the federal government. Lewis knew that Trump’s offensive statements scapegoating blacks, Mexicans and Muslims were dangerous. H knew that Trump’s pronouncements could potentially radicalize racist fanatics and incite them to violence. Lewis knew firsthand the results of the type of racialized white leadership that Trump took to the White House..
He told the XXXX news that he saw distinct similarities between Trump and George C. Wallace, the deceased segregationist governor of Alabama, a state where angry, racist whites burned the home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and bloodthirsty Ku Klux Klansmen bombed churches, and shot, castrated and lynched black men.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Klanwatch Project, in 1957, the violent white terrorist group abducted a black handyman named Edward Aaron in Alabama, and then “castrated him and poured hot turpentine into his wounds.”
Lewis said, that Governor Wallace, who became a champion of racism by proclaiming “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever,” didn’t wield the castration blade … didn’t “pull the trigger” … “didn’t throw the bomb” … “But he created the climate and the environment for other people to do it.”
He knew Trump’s fiery campaign rhetoric, which urged the presidential candidate’s zealous followers to attack opposition protestors at his rallies, was just as potent and dangerous as Wallace’s racist exhortations. His concerns were substantiated on August 12, 2017 in Charlottsville, Virginia, when KKK and Nazi groups joined forces and fomented violence that eventually resulted in the death of a woman protesting against the hate groups.
However, no matter how dark it becomes in America, I am sure Lewis will always hold firm to his faith that the American people will be able to withstand this hatred. Instead of cursing the darkness created by race manipulators like Trump, Lewis will forever reaffirm his belief that America’s racial scars will, like his own mortal wounds, heal.
Keep Hope Alive!
- Jesse Jackson
I’ve heard the hope-filled congressman up close and personal, and I have followed him in the news. Yes, I’ve heard him well, and I have been duly moved. God bless this saintly hero’s conviction that goodness can withstand the forces of evil without resorting to uncompromising coercion.
However, I remain very doubtful. It is hard to believe that long-running, blood-drenched wars currently being waged across the planet and right here in America without one side gaining the advantage and subduing the will of opposition through strategic and/or overwhelming violence.
I am no John Lewis. I do not think I could ever be like him, though I was beaten down by cops and rose back up, like he did—head wounded but unbowed. He arose with love in his heart for the demon cops who attacked him. I did not. For, how can a man love his enemy and wish to see him dead at the same time? This is a question I have yet to figure out.
In honor of Lewis’ unwavering, brick-hard belief in the redemption of mankind, despite all that he has endured, he should be knighted by the Queen of England. He should be feted world over in a grand global victory romp through which he could uplift, encourage and challenge billions of people. And Donald Trump should pay for the trip.
Fat chance. All the hope in the world could not make that happen. Then again, I am sure Lewis would say all good things are possible.
When I reflect on my interview with Mr. Lewis, I am almost moved to tears. His sedate spirit continues to minister to my agitated soul. I want to keep feeling his peaceful presence. I want to be transformed by it. I want it to quell my raging inner warrior and envelope it in a “Peace, be still” transfiguration. I want the same to happen to other men like me. Decent men who have been harassed and abused by our own government, and who see more endangerment looming ahead—danger exacerbated by the twisted leadership of Donald Trump.
But with men like John Lewis in America, there will always be hope. I want to follow his example. I want to believe as he believes. If I were somehow able to reach his level of passionate pacifism, I would hope that when I turn the other cheek, I won’t get slapped again, and again, and again.
I want to join John Lewis in his faith. I want the whole world to join him and share his vision. His spirit beckons us all to lift our hearts and our hopes and interlink them together as a mighty force of love against evil.
His spirit summons us to rise above our lower selves and ascend, as he has, to our higher selves.
He appeals to us to let the light of hope shine within us—despite the darkness trying to smother it.
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!
Unfortunately, despite the mighty power of John Lewis’ faith, and despite his flair for forgiveness, the light of hope, far too often, will not shine until the darkness is turned back by force.
The light must fight the darkness, not kneel down and pray with it.
Black men will not be free from excessive and selective law enforcement until they rise up and demand peace by every means necessary. They must be willing to make the tough decisions and pay the full price for full freedom, if necessary—as so many other oppressed men have done to set themselves free.
This is my belief.
I believe that it is natural law that in order to have peace, you must have war.
This is the law of nature and Heaven.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: … a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.
Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you …
– Quran – Islamic religion
If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him (first).”
The Talmud – Jewish religion
Blessed are the peace makers.
by Langston Hughes
The reason Dixie
Is so mean today
Is because it wasn’t licked
In the proper way.