In many ways, John Lewis’ life speaks for itself. He was a champion of justice who risked his life in the name of freedom countless times, and continued on in public service until his very last days. But with lessons not only from the recent past but for our present day and beyond, the story and witness of John Lewis is one that bears telling — and hearing — again and again.
In the forthcoming biography His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope, historian Jon Meacham lays out the arc of Lewis’ extraordinary time on this earth: from his early days as “the boy from Troy,” as Martin Luther King Jr. called him in their first meeting, to the front lines of the civil rights movement, to the halls of government, and finally to the pantheon of history. The book includes an afterword by Lewis himself, written not long before his death this past July.
“He was as important to the founding of a modern and multiethnic twentieth- and twenty-first century America as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and Samuel Adams were to the creation of the nation-state in the eighteenth century,” Meacham writes. “This is not hyperbole. It is fact—observable, discernible, undeniable fact.” Meacham also submits that John Lewis might meet the requirements of an even loftier title: saint.
In this excerpt, taken from the introduction, John Lewis has just visited the bridge above the Alabama River where he was beaten nearly to death years before, on the march from Montgomery to Selma.
Taken together with sit-ins to integrate lunch counters and other public facilities and Freedom Rides to integrate interstate travel, the Selma march, Lewis recalled, “injected something very special into the soul and the heart and the veins of America. It said, in effect, that we must humanize our social and political and economic structure. When people saw what happened on that bridge, there was a sense of revulsion all over America.” Revulsion, then redemption: Is there anything more American? “Redemption—redemption is everything,” Lewis said. “It is what we pray for. It is what we march for. It is the work of America. In the ’60s, and now, and always.”
In the middle of the last century, he marched into the line of fire to summon a nation to be what it had long said it would be but had failed to become. Arrested 45 times over the course of his life, Lewis suffered a fractured skull and was repeatedly beaten and tear-gassed. It takes nothing away from the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., or of Rosa Parks, or of any of the legions who marched and worked and struggled for justice, to say that John Lewis was the fullest and bravest embodiment of the raw courage required to end a century of Jim Crow in America.
His plea was not rhetorical but real. He led by example more than by words. He was a peaceful soldier in the cause of a religiously inspired understanding of humanity and of America. And he bent history to his will—though he would insist the important thing was not his will, but God’s. No other American represented the harsh realities and the high hopes of the civil-rights movement more vividly over a longer period of time more than John Lewis; no other prominent American bore such steady witness over as many decades to the belief, grounded in scripture and in the American tradition, that all men are in fact created equal.
The world was one way before John Lewis came out of Pike County and into the maelstrom of history, and it was another way when he was done. Though, to be strictly accurate, he was never done. “In the final analysis, we are one people, one family, one house—not just the house of black and white, but the house of the South, the house of America,” Lewis said. “We can move ahead, we can move forward, we can create a multiracial community, a truly democratic society. I think we’re on our way there. There may be some setbacks. But we are going to get there. We have to be hopeful. Never give up, never give in, keep moving on.” Devoted to the ideal of a soul’s pilgrimage from sin to redemption, from the wilderness of the world to the Kingdom of God, Lewis walked with faith that tomorrow could be better than today, and that tomorrow was but prelude to a yet more glorious day after that.
To put complicated matters simply: John Robert Lewis embodied the traits of a saint in the classical Christian sense of the term. A complex concept, sanctity has at various times been applied to all believers or to a special few. In Greek, the language of the New Testament, sainthood is derived from hagaizo, which means “to set apart” or “make holy.” (The Latin is sanctus.) Generations of believers have held that some human lives are in such harmony with the ideals of God that they should be singled out. One need not embrace Catholic practice and doctrine to benefit from the contemplation of men and women who, in the words of an old hymn, “toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.” One test of a saint, closely tied to the test of a martyr, is the willingness to suffer and die for others. Which Lewis was willing to do—again and again and again, on the streets of America the day before yesterday.
This may sound sentimental and overly grand, and if one were saying it about virtually anyone other than Lewis, it likely would be. To see John Lewis as a saint and hero, however, is not nostalgic, nor does such an understanding flow from a kind of easy-listening historical sensibility in which the civil rights movement is white America’s safe and redemptive drama. It comes, rather, from the straightforward story of what Lewis did, how he lived, and why. He accomplished something on the battlefields of twentieth-century America, in the skirmishes in our streets and in our cities and in our hearts, that links him with the saints of ancient ages, with the revolutionaries of the eighteenth century, and with the abolitionists and Union soldiers of the nineteenth. In Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural, the new president appealed, eloquently but theoretically, to “the better angels of our nature.” John Lewis is a better angel. The American present and future may in many ways hinge on the extent to which the rest of us can draw lessons from his example.
Excerpted from His Truth Is Marching On by Jon Meacham. Copyright © 2020 by Jon Meacham. Excerpted by permission of Random House, an imprint of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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