By Jon Meacham
The recent death of John Lewis, the most prominent surviving leader of the civil rights movement, produced an outpouring of adulation, from a funeral addressed by three former presidents to a prime-time mash-up of history and entertainment hosted by Oprah Winfrey. Lewis deserved the accolades, but elevating him to the status of national icon may obscure how much of his agenda remains to be accomplished, as thousands of Americans are reminding us each day.
Jon Meacham, the best-selling author of a number of biographies as well as "The Soul of America," a celebration of American democratic values, opens "His Truth Is Marching On" in a hagiographic vein. The first chapter argues that Lewis can reasonably be regarded as a saint "in the classical Christian sense of the term" — one who lived his life in accordance with the precepts of love and forgiveness embodied in Christ's words on the Cross (the subject of Meacham's previous book). For Lewis, Meacham writes, a Christian life meant standing up to injustice, and racial integration was a means of "bringing the world into closer tune with the Gospel." There is a subtext. Meacham wants to show that despite evidence all around us of injustices committed in the name of religion, faith-based activism can produce a better society.
Born in 1940, Lewis was one of 10 children of parents who owned a farm in Jim Crow Alabama, a world where lynchings were not uncommon, judges flagrantly violated the Constitution and police officers openly conspired with Klansmen. Early on, Lewis aspired to be a minister; as a child, he preached to a captive audience of the family's chickens. At 17, Lewis enrolled in a seminary in Nashville. Here he encountered the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch, an early-20th-century proponent of the Social Gospel, and fell in with a group of civil rights activists.
In the 1960s, for the first time in United States history, young people stood at the cutting edge of American radicalism. And no one better exemplified the youth and courage of participants in the movement or was present at more key moments than Lewis. At 19 he took part in his first sit-in. At 21 he participated in the Freedom Rides, was assaulted by a mob and spent a month at Parchman Farm, the notorious Mississippi prison William Faulkner called "destination doom." At 23, Lewis was elected chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and became the youngest speaker at the March on Washington. The following year found him in the Mississippi Delta taking part in Freedom Summer. In 1965 he suffered a fractured skull at the hands of the Alabama state police, who violently dispersed voting rights marchers at Selma in an event soon memorialized as Bloody Sunday.
Meacham tells this story with his customary eloquence. And by decentering Martin Luther King Jr. in favor of SNCC, he allows less famous activists to come to the fore, including the Rev. James Lawson, who led workshops in Nashville on the teachings of Gandhi, and Diane Nash, a student leader and key organizer of the sit-ins and Freedom Rides. Black elders like Thurgood Marshall warned the young radicals that their militant tactics could be politically counterproductive. At the March on Washington, the organizers persuaded Lewis to remove incendiary language from his prepared remarks, including a reference to marching "through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did" (though he planned to add "nonviolently"). But the movement's growing militancy, spearheaded by SNCC, and the violent resistance it encountered, created a national crisis that propelled a reluctant federal government to embrace the cause of Black freedom. By 1965, with new laws prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations and voting, the legal foundations of Jim Crow had been destroyed.
Even as the movement achieved its greatest triumphs, however, it faced a crisis as urban uprisings, beginning in Harlem in 1964, drew attention to the economic inequality civil rights legislation could not cure. Nonviolent demonstrations and willingness to suffer beatings and face mass arrests, strategies successful in the South, were not well suited to confronting what is today called systemic racism in the rest of the country. The enemy was no longer Sheriff Jim Clark and his Alabama storm troopers but faceless bureaucrats in banks and real estate companies that redlined Black neighborhoods, school boards that drew district boundaries to perpetuate segregation and police officers whose brutality occurred far from the glare of television cameras.
In 1964, the Democratic National Convention refused to replace Mississippi's official all-white delegation with the interracial one chosen by the state's Freedom Democratic Party. "As far as I'm concerned," Lewis later wrote, this all but forgotten episode was "the turning point of the civil rights movement." It convinced many Black members of SNCC that they could not trust white allies and needed to make decisions for themselves. For Lewis, the new mood took a personal turn in 1966 when he was ousted as SNCC leader in favor of Stokely Carmichael, who popularized the slogan Black Power as an alternative to Lewis's vision of an integrated Beloved Community. White America, Meacham notes, found Black Power deeply threatening, even though "White Power had been acceptable since Jamestown." Troubled by internal division and F.B.I. harassment, SNCC did not long outlive the 1960s.
His removal, Meacham writes, devastated Lewis. But it became a formative moment in his career. He spent the next two years in New York City, where he came under the influence of Bayard Rustin, who insisted that the movement must turn to political engagement. In 1968, Lewis joined the campaign of Robert F. Kennedy for the Democratic presidential nomination. Eventually, he would be elected to the House of Representatives from Atlanta, serving in Congress for more than three decades.
Unfortunately, apart from a brief afterword by Lewis himself, "His Truth Is Marching On" ends in 1968 with Kennedy's assassination. We get no sense of how Lewis made the transition from protest to elective politics, or what he accomplished in the House. Perhaps inevitably, Lewis's conduct was less saintly once he became a politician. During a race for Congress in 1986, he unfairly denigrated his opponent, the civil rights veteran Julian Bond, for having done nothing more than put out news releases while "I was on the front lines."
Compared with Meacham's earlier works, this book, published only a few months after his most recent one, gives the impression of having been written in haste. Much of it relies on Lewis's 1998 memoir, "Walking With the Wind." The emphasis on the spiritual origins of Lewis's commitment to social change leads to slighting the movement's more secular catalysts, including the destabilization of the racial system during World War II and the rise of independent nations in Africa. (Meacham mentions that in 1961 Lewis applied for a grant from the American Friends Service Committee to visit Africa, but does not explain why.) For a full account of Lewis's life, we must await the biography being written by the Rutgers historian David Greenberg, to which Meacham graciously directs readers.
Jimmy Carter once remarked, "If you want to understand the civil rights movement, remember this: Martin Luther King didn't integrate the South. SNCC integrated the South." Meacham's book is a welcome reminder of the heroic sacrifices and remarkable achievements of those young radicals — 20th-century America's greatest generation.