Saturday July 18, 2020
John Lewis (1940-2020)
Lewis at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 50th anniversary of the march.
The Proust Questionnaire is a series of questions French author Marcel Proust dreamed up which are designed to make you think deeply about yourself and your place in the world. Vanity Fair uses it every month to ask a different famous person for their own answers and publishes them on its back page. In 2009, I decided to do my own. One question, it turned out, was pretty easy to answer:
Which living person do you most admire?
After a seven-month battle with stage IV pancreatic cancer, and a lifetime of struggle against racism, oppression and injustice, John Lewis died yesterday. He was 80.
I got to meet him once. In February 2000, University Book Store, where I’d worked two years before, held an event at the University of Washington campus for Lewis and his book, “Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.” The event’s organizer, Kim Ricketts, was a friend, and she made sure I not only got in but backstage for a post-speech event.
Two main memories. One, I didn’t ask Lewis the question I wanted to ask. Others stepped up to the microphone to ask their questions but I kept editing mine in my head and never stood up. The question was basically “After facing all of the dangers you’ve faced—from the Nashville sit-ins to the Freedom Rides to Selma—what can possibly still frighten you? What are you still afraid of?” Yes, it’s part compliment, part legitimate query, which is partly why I hesitated; but I’m still curious what his answer would’ve been. I’ll never know.
Two, I did get to meet him at the event afterwards. He asked me about me. At the time I was an STE, or software test engineer, at Microsoft. That’s the grand way of putting it. The more straightforward way is: I tested Xbox games for a living. But he was curious, and complimentary, and told me I was doing good work. I think I cringed inside at his compliment. I knew it wasn’t good work. Or: I knew it wasn’t worthy work. It was getting-by work. Maybe he knew that getting-by work was most work for most people. Maybe he was being kind. Maybe he knew a well-placed compliment was a better spur than a finger-wagging judgment.
I probably first became aware of him after watching the PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize” but he became my hero when I read “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63,” the first of Taylor Branch’s three-part epic, in the late 1980s. There are a lot of lesser-known movement heroes but I identified with him. He seemed calm to me. I like calm. And I just couldn’t believe how often he was at the forefront. Again and again, it was his body that went into the breach. He offered it up time and again in the Gandhian fashion to Southern racists, who rarely turned him down.
This is from page 261 of “Parting the Waters”: the first time Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and movement attorney Fred Gray met Lewis, 18, who wanted to sue for the right to attend Troy State College in his home country of Troy, Alabama:
King encountered a young man somewhat like himself in appearance—small, sturdy, dark-skinned, with a round face built for warmth more than looks—but completely lacking in refinement. Lewis spoke with a stammer, and could barely complete a full sentence even when the stammer gave him peace. He said he had “come up” so far back in the country that he could not remember even seeing a white person in his youth. This made him decidedly not the type the NAACP lawyers had ben choosing for integration test cases, because he appeared to be a Negro whom no amount of education could polish. Yet there was an incandescence in Lewis that shone through all his shortcomings. He said he was ready to die to go to Troy State but that he could probably avoid such a fate if he followed nonviolent principles. …
Lewis was proud of the fact that he had discovered King before the bus boycott made him famous. By chance, he had listened in 1955 to a radio sermon entitled “Paul’s Letter to the American Christians,” in which King assumed the style and theology of St. Paul to criticize Christians for selfishness and failures of brotherhood. Lewis still remembered being heartshaken in front of the radio. Within the space of an hour, his dreams of becoming a preacher had focused upon a new idol.
He was an odd child. He found God at age 8 and felt that chickens more than other farm animals were worthy of salvation. Maybe because they were the most vulnerable? The most helpless? He preached to the chickens and baptized young chicks. If a chicken was killed for dinner, Branch writes, “Lewis cried hysterically and boycotted meals.”
He wound up at Nashville rather than Troy, participating in non-violent workshops and then the sit-ins that took the movement to its second phase: not merely avoidance (of discriminatory buses), but direct non-violent confrontation (at Woolworth’s lunch counters). The sit-ins began in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 1960, quickly spread across the country, and Nashville became a focal point. Then Freedom Rides, SNCC, March, Selma. He went from young firebrand (at the March) to ousted SNCC leader by the next and less worthy generation of firebrand (Stokely).
Lewis and Jim Zwerg during the Freedom Rides, 1961.
I forget when I found out Lewis was still alive but it amazed me on some level. He kept putting his body on the line, and he was part of such important history, that I always thought of him in the past tense. And he survived it all? And was now representing Georgia’s 5th District in the U.S. House of Representatives? And fighting the good fight every day? “Good trouble,” he called it. He created the circumstances that allowed his career.
I got angry at John McCain’s attempt to use him during the 2008 debates. I teared up reading David Remnick’s story about Jan. 20, 2009: “Because of you, John. Barack Obama.” The bad guys are still at work, of course. They’re still trying to undo it all. The last time I posted about him was just before the 2016 election: “Friends of mine gave their lives [for the right to vote],” he wrote on social media. “Honor their sacrifice. Vote.” It included a photo of a young, beaten John Lewis being carried to a police wagon. “The above is still happening,” I added, “just in more muted form. I think some of Trump's supporters would like to unmute it. Don't let them.” Not enough people listened.
I wish he’d outlived Trump’s presidency but I’m glad he got to see the country and the world rise up in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. “It was so painful, it made me cry,” he said of Floyd’s death. “People now understand what the struggle was all about. It’s another step down a very, very long road toward freedom, justice for all humankind.”
I recommend “Eyes” and “Parting the Waters” and “Walking with the Wind.” I recommend “Reporting Civil Rights,” Library of America's two-volume collection of eyewitness journalistic accounts on the civil rights struggle from 1941 to 1973, which was published on the 40th anniversary of the March. I recommend “Selma.” I have yet to see “Good Trouble,” the documentary on Lewis that premiered this month. That’s next. I recommend Charles Pierce’s beautiful eulogy:
He was the bravest man I ever met. Heroes in war, most of them, know that the country will embrace them when they come home. They have that to sustain them in the worst circumstances. They already know they have a country worth fighting for. When John Lewis was riding buses, and using forbidden washrooms, and walking across the bridge, he didn’t have that on which to rely. In that violent, freighted time, he was a man without a country. His courage came from a different place. It came not from being a man without a country, but from being a man demanding a country, and he wanted this one. … John Lewis had the most American soul I ever saw.
I was surprised how much it hurt, hearing of his death last night, and it made me want to do something. Someone on Twitter mentioned that there were pedestals in need of statues. Indeed. Someone else suggested a renaming of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Yes. Yet others reminded us that in December the U.S. House, led by Lewis, voted to restore the Voting Rights Act that the U.S. Supreme Court had gutted in Shelby County v. Holder, and that the bill is currently languishing in the U.S. Senate, so now’s the time to pass it. I’m down for all three. But I have little faith in the third happening with Republicans in control of the Senate. Which brings us back to John Lewis’ life work. Honor him on Nov. 3. Make good trouble. Vote.