It always is sad when we lose a great leader, and Representative John Lewis, unquestionably, was one of the greatest leaders of his time, along with Dr. King.
Rep. Lewis was far from perfect. As with all politicians, and most great leaders, he made compromises. But good government is, among other things, the art of compromise. Unlike many (most?) politicians, Lewis never lost his moral compass, which is why “the Boy from Troy” was hailed as the “conscience of Congress.”
We remember him primarily for his work and sacrifices to bring about African American equality. But, he did not work only for the rights of African Americans. He worked for the rights of all oppressed groups in the U.S. He was a strong advocate of the rights of women, LGBTQ, immigrants, Mexican Americans/Latinos and Native Americans, veterans, and the rights of the poor and workers in general. He never wavered from his commitments to these, the majority members of our society.
Our loss is incalculable. We can hope (and those of us who are religious can pray) new leaders will emerge from the chaos of demonstrations over police brutality, police murders of persons of color (Mexican Americans and Native Americans included), and police riots. As they do, we must stand with them.
How many times was John Lewis beaten by racist bigots and police? Quite possibly even John lost count. He was beaten nearly to death twice—once in a Montgomery, Alabama Greyhound Bus station in 1961 where he was beaten unconscious and said he thought he was going to die. The second time was the infamous “Bloody Sunday” in March 1965 when Alabama State Police fractured his skull as he knelt praying.
For many people, being beaten once, much less being beaten unconscious, would have been enough. Out of fear, out of not wanting to be beaten to death, some might withdraw from protests, from activism. Most people simply lack the courage to stand in the face repeatedly of brutal oppression. Thankfully, not John Lewis.
Such brutality by mobs and by police is a standard means of controlling populations because it is intimidating and engenders fear. However, what we saw in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, and are seeing again today, such actions today by the police actually increase the determination and the number of people willing to resist.
We recently heard a lot about the Tulsa massacre in 1921 in which mobs killed hundreds of African Americans. History books don’t say much about that; just as they don’t say much about police/military massacres of U.S. citizens, such as the Ludlow, Colorado Massacre of 1914.
John D. Rockefeller owned numerous mines in Colorado, including a coal mine near Ludlow. Miners went on strike because they effectively were slave labor. When the harsh Colorado winter did not break the strike, the Governor called out State police and the National Guard, actually were paid by Rockefeller, and who, in coordination with Rockefeller’s guards, opened fire with machine guns on a camp of over 1,000 strikers, plus their wives and children.
Some might say these events occurred over a century ago, and police and military do not conduct themselves like this any more. As John Lewis has attested, even if there were no outright massacres, police were conducting themselves like that in the 1960’s throughout the South. Again, how many times was John Lewis beaten and arrested by police? How many others along with him?
Then, of course, there was the 1968 Police Riot in Chicago. If we look at the factors instigating the riots in Watts, Newark Detroit, and numerous other cities throughout the nation throughout the 50’s 60’s and 70’s, most of those erupted as a consequence of police harassment and brutality against minority populations. The merciless Los Angeles Police beating of Rodney King in 1991, and the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri Police murder of Michael Brown are more recent examples.
These actions by police have been ongoing in this country since the very inception of policing. They are the primary reason why police departments were created. Given a long history, we should not be surprised police brutality, police murders, and police riots continue to this day, as we have seen with recent federal officers rioting in Portland.
And therein lies the irony. John Lewis, one of the great leaders of the Civil Rights movement from the 1960’s died during the largest national reckoning on the rights of ethnic minorities and systemic police violence against those minorities since the 1960’s.
Minneapolis, Atlanta, Portland, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and numerous other cities have seen massive demonstrations against police abuse, brutality and murders. In Washington, D.C. Federal forces viciously attacked peaceful protestors to clear a way through Lafayette Park for Trump’s upside down and backward Bible photo op.
Upside down and backward is a fair characterization of Trump’s presidency.
In Portland, Federal officers, doing a superb imitation of historical police thuggery increased the level of violence in that city. While, unfortunately, there had been some violence in the nightly demonstrations for minority rights. when Federal forces arrived, the situation became much more tense and much more violent. This was primarily because those Federal forces, themselves, were very violent in their relentless attacks on demonstrators, irrespective of whether those demonstrators were engaging in violence, or were adhering to the non-violent teachings of Dr. King and John Lewis.
Let’s understand violence in demonstrations for the rights of our citizens always is counter productive. It gave Nixon his “law and order” excuse in 1968. Today, Trump is attempting the same ploy. It does not matter how outraged we are, it does not matter how severely we are beaten by racist mobs or the police, we must be willing to put our lives on the line without responding in kind, without engaging in violence ourselves.
This is a great lesson John Lewis has taught us by not resisting, not retaliating in kind, even as he was being beaten nearly to death.
It always is tragic when truly great leaders die. There always is a loss that cannot be recovered irrespective of the accomplishments of those who follow in her/his footsteps. John Lewis’ death is a tragedy for this nation. But, no one lives forever; and in many respects John’s death at this time in our nation’s history is perfectly apropos.
The news, thankfully, has devoted countless hours to his life, to the indignities and violence he, and others in the Civil Rights movement endured. His death has enabled us to juxtapose the 60’s with today’s civil rights movement. In many, far too many respects, things have not changed very much; certainly not nearly enough.
Just as in the 60’s, just as in the 1700’s and 1800’s when “law enforcement officers” hunted down and often killed runaway slaves, just as in the 1800’s when perhaps thousands of Mexicans and Mexican Americans were hunted down and killed by “law enforcement”, just as in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when police brutally suppressed the labor movement, routinely killing people, precipitating massacres, we see today police still put their knees on the necks of African Americans, still shoot African Americans and Mexican Americans in the back, in cold blood, simply because they can; simply because historically this has been their responsibility, and they have been able to beat and murder with impunity.
As former President Obama said in his superb eulogy of John Lewis, Bull O’Connor may be gone. George Wallace may be gone. But we have a President, police chiefs, and far too many police officers who are happy to follow in the traditions of O’Connor and Wallace in oppressing and brutalizing minorities.
Let us pray those days are ending.
Even in death, John Lewis has helped us to focus on these centuries long injustices.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above op-ed shows John Lewis, right, and Lester McKinnie, center, being interviewed by ABC News at the sit-in demonstrators’ base at the First Baptist Church in Nashville on April 30, 1964. (Photo: J.T. Phillips—The Tennessean/Imagn Content Services/USA Today Network/Reuters)