It was January, 2009, and I don’t think I’d ever seen someone so full of hope: on the Sunday before Barack Obama’s first inauguration, John Lewis arrived at Shiloh Baptist, an African-American church in Washington founded just after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, to preach “the King message.” Lewis told me that, for days, he had been walking around the capital in a “state of unreality.”
Lewis, who announced this Sunday that he will soon begin treatment for Stage IV pancreatic cancer, is seventy-nine, and he has represented Georgia’s fifth congressional district since 1987. He grew up in a sharecropper family near Troy, Alabama. Jim Crow ruled his early years: the Whites Only rule that kept him from reading books at the Pike County public library, the countless miseries and injustices that structured life. When he was barely twenty, Lewis was among the first Freedom Riders. He soon became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he spoke alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The elders in the movement judged his original text to be too radical, too confrontational with the Kennedy Administration––“Which side is the federal government on?” Lewis had wanted to ask. The elders made him tone it down.
Days before Obama’s inaugural ceremonies, despite freezing temperatures, thousands of people, many of them African-American, wandered around the Capitol Building and the Mall just to get close to what they knew would be a historic event. At Shiloh Baptist, Lewis told the congregants that on inauguration day the crowds on the Mall would be joined by the “saints and angels”: by Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, John Brown, Nat Turner, W. E. B. Du Bois. Later, as Lewis was walking around the Mall, talking with people, a young black man approached shyly and introduced himself, saying he was the police chief in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Lewis smiled. “Imagine that,” he said. “I was beaten near to death at the Rock Hill Greyhound bus terminal during the Freedom Rides, in 1961. Now the police chief is black.”
Lewis initially supported Hillary Clinton in the 2008 race–––he regarded the Clintons as longtime allies and was reluctant to abandon them––but, he said, he had “an executive session with myself” and switched to Obama. “I had to be on the right side of history.” Obama, for his part, kept a framed cover of Life magazine in his Senate office; the cover was from March, 1965, and it captured the standoff on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, between Alabama state troopers and the crowd of civil-rights protesters, led by John Lewis. In his remarkable memoir of the movement, “Walking with the Wind,” Lewis recalled the approach of the troopers on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday: “The clunk of the troopers’ heavy boots, the whoops of rebel yells from the white onlookers, the clip-clop of horses’ hooves hitting the hard asphalt of the highway, the voice of a woman shouting, ‘Get ’em! Get the niggers!’ And then they were upon us.”
Seconds later, a state trooper brought a truncheon down on Lewis, fracturing his skull. Lewis refused to go to the hospital. Instead, in a daze, his pale raincoat splattered with blood, he made his way to the pulpit of Brown Chapel, where many of the protesters, choking from tear gas, had assembled. Lewis told them, “I don’t know how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam. I don’t see how he can send troops to the Congo. I don’t see how he can send troops to Africa, and he can’t send troops to Selma, Alabama.”
Television coverage of Selma, and the outrage that grew out of it, insured that Bloody Sunday became one of the most important acts of nonviolent resistance since 1930, when Mahatma Gandhi led the long march against the colonial salt tax. Bloody Sunday sparked Lyndon Johnson to push through the Voting Rights Act by the end of the summer––and John Lewis, age twenty-five, had been at the head of it all.
As Obama left his swearing in, Lewis approached him with a sheet of paper and asked the new President, the first black President, to sign it. And he did. He wrote, “Because of you, John. Barack Obama.”
It is hard not to view this capsule history as naïve and sentimental. We are three years into a Trump Administration––and a year away from his quite possible reëlection. At Trump rallies, some supporters plainly revel in his cruelties and bigotry. Countless other Trump voters deny that they are racist or misogynist or xenophobic––they support him for other reasons, they tell pollsters and reporters––but in order to vote for him, they had to be willing, at a minimum, to tolerate his racism, his contempt for women, immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, Central Americans, Africans. And to know that this is still possible tells a bleak story: no matter how carefully Obama calibrated his language about race, his sheer presence as President fuelled resentments and hatreds that Trump has been able to exploit. Though the election of a black President fulfilled at least a measure of what John Lewis and so many others had been jailed and beaten for, the Obama Presidency hardly eradicated the racist, nativist strain that has infected American life for centuries.
John Lewis refused to attend Trump’s inauguration. He said that that Russian interference in the campaign was unfair and the election “illegitimate.” Trump could not resist retaliating against Lewis, tweeting that the congressman from Atlanta ought to “spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart.” Trump, of course, smeared other members of Congress of color in similar terms. He attacked the late Elijah Cummings, in similarly racist language, calling the Baltimore congressman’s district, “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”
When Trump said that four Democratic congresswomen of color––Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley––should “go back” to where they came from, Lewis did not hesitate to call things by their proper name. “I know racism when I see it,” he said before a House vote, in July, denouncing the President’s tweets. “I know racism when I feel it. And at the highest level of our government, there’s no room for racism.”
More recently, Lewis gave one of the most compelling speeches supporting Trump’s impeachment. “Our nation is founded on the principle that we do not have kings,” he said from the House floor. “We have Presidents. And the Constitution is our compass. When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’ For some, this vote may be hard. But we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.”
No one, over a long lifetime, gets everything right. John Lewis has come as close as anyone. Which is why the news of his illness is such painful news. But, on Sunday, it was Lewis himself who quickly made clear that he was not prepared to relinquish his struggles. His decency is matched by his relentlessness.
“I have been in some kind of fight—for freedom, equality, basic human rights—for nearly my entire life,” he said. “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now.” Despite the seriousness of his condition, doctors told him he has a “fighting chance”: “So I have decided to do what I knew to do and what I have always done: I am going to fight it and keep fighting for the Beloved Community.”