Rep. John Lewis: 1940-2020–Now He’s Walking in the Wind

John Lewis in a 2016 sit-in on the floor of the US House of Representatives
John Lewis in a 2016 sit-in on the floor of the US House of Representatives

Debbie says:

I wasn’t going to write about John Lewis today; so many other people are doing it better than I ever could. But when I went to the site with the article I was going to blog (it’s coming), I found this article by Zak Cheney-Rice condensed from interviews Lewis gave last month. And some of you might not have seen it.

John Lewis, for anyone who doesn’t know, was a leader of the 1960s civil rights movement. He, and many others, were beaten by police on the Edmund Pettus bridge in 1965. Over the course of his life, he was arrested 40 times — 5 of them after he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from a district of Atlanta.

At the 1963 March on Washington, from the same podium where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, John Lewis gave a more fiery, radical speech — even after it was toned down by the march organizers (including Dr. King).  Details in this Twitter thread from @studentactivism. Perhaps the most telling edit was that they made him change “people who must live in constant fear in a police state” to “people who must live in constant fear of a police state.” Listen to the difference.

If you didn’t have the context, you might read some of his comments from these June interviews as mild and moderate, but the fire behind them never went out.

I’m curious, watching what’s happened this past week or so, what has stood out to you?
This determination of the young people, even not so young. Not just in America, but all around the world. I’ve come in contact with people who feel inspired. They’re moved. They’ve just never been along in a protest — they’ve never been in a march before — they decided to march with their children and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and to walk with them. They’re helping to educate and inspire another generation of activists. It’s seeing an effect. There can be no turning back; there can be no giving up.

Have you had a moment where you felt that maybe this wasn’t working?
No, I never ever came to that point. You get thrown in jail, maybe for a few days, and then you go to Mississippi, and you go to the state penitentiary, and you find some of your friends and your colleagues. And you get out, and you go on to the next effort. We used to say struggling is not a struggle that lasts for a few days, a few weeks, a few years. It is a struggle of a lifetime.

We have, in a lot of the cities where this unrest is happening today, progressive mayors, progressive city councils, and yet law-enforcement violence occurs regardless of who’s in office. I just wonder, Where should concerned Americans be directing their energy when voting the right people, or who they think are the right people, into office doesn’t seem to be solving the problem?
We must never ever give up, or give in, or throw in the towel. We must continue to press on! And be prepared to do what we can to help educate people, to motivate people, to inspire people to stay engaged, to stay involved, and to not lose their sense of hope. We must continue to say we’re one people. We’re one family. We all live in the same house. Not just an American house but the world house. As Dr. King said over and over again, “We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters. If not, we will perish as fools.”

cover of Walking with the Wind

A few years ago, I read Walking with the Wind, Lewis’s autobiography. The title story has always stayed with me: as a child, Lewis was in his aunt’s ramshackle house in the rural South. A serious windstorm was threatening to tear the house off its foundation, and the children were scared. His aunt got the children to move around the house with the wind, holding down whatever corner was precarious, until the storm stopped.

Since I read that, I’ve always seen Lewis moving to the most vulnerable corner, using his physical, intellectual, and moral weight to hold it down.


Follow me on Twitter. Thanks to @waywardcats for the pointer to the edits to Lewis’s 1963 speech.