[In May and June of 2020, a time of pandemic isolation, economic collapse, and intense partisan rivalry, videos of Minneapolis cops lynching George Floyd — a Black man with his hands cuffed behind his back — sparked nationwide mass protests against widespread police brutality and systemic racism in America.]
I have read many of the so-called civil rights books of the last 50 or 60 years about the period between 1953 and 1973. Most of the books are wrong about John Lewis. Most of the books are wrong about how John got engaged in the Nashville campaign of 1959-60. This is the 60th year of the sit-in campaign which swept into every state of the union, largely manned by students because we recruited students. But put up on the map that the nonviolent struggle begun in Montgomery, Alabama, was not an accident, but as Martin King Jr. called it, Christian love has power that we have never tapped, and if we use it, we can transform not only our own lives, but we will transform the Earth in which we live.
I count it providential that as I moved to Nashville, Tennessee, dropping out of graduate school, in Nashville came people like Kelly Miller Smith and Andrew White and Johnetta Hayes and Helen Roberts and Delores Wilkerson, and John Lewis. And Diane Nash, C.T. Vivian, Marion Barry, Jim Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, Pauline Knight, Angela Butler. How all of us gathered in 1958 and '59 and '60 and '61 and '62, in the same city at the same time, I count as being providential. We did not plan it. We were all led there.
And when Kelly Miller Smith and the National Christian Leadership Council met in the fall of 1958, and we determined that if there is to be a second major campaign that will demonstrate the efficacy of satyagraha, of soul force, of love truth, that we would have to do it in Nashville. And so, I planned, as the strategist and organizer, a four-point Gandhian strategic program to create the campaign. We decided with great fear and anticipation we would desegregate downtown Nashville. No group of black people or other people anywhere in the United States in the 20th century, against the rapaciousness of a segregated system, ever thought about desegregating downtown. Tearing down the signs, renovating the waiting rooms, taking the immoral signs off of drinking fountains.
But it was black women who made that decision for us in Nashville. I was scared to death when we made that decision. I knew nothing about how we were going to do this. I had never done it before. But, we planned the strategy. John Lewis did not stumble in on that campaign. Kelly Lewis Smith, his teacher at ABC, invited John to join the workshops in the fall of 1959 as we prepared ourselves to face violence, and to do direct action, and to put on the map the issue that the racism and the segregation of the nation had to end.
And so, on the 60th anniversary of that sit-in campaign, which became the second major campaign of the nonviolent movement of America — those are not my words; John Lewis called what we did between 1953 and 1973 the nonviolent movement of America, not the CRM. I think we need to get the story straight, because words are powerful. History must be written in such a fashion that it lifts up truly the spirit of the John Lewises of the world. And that's why I have chosen just to say a few words about it. Kelly Miller Smith invited John Lewis. I met a Fisk student who told me about a student from Chicago who wanted to do something about those vicious signs. I said, "Invite Diane Nash to the workshop in September, because we're going to do something about those signs." I pushed this hard.
Now, John Lewis had no choice in the matter. You should understand that. Because all the stories we have heard this morning of John becoming a preacher, preaching to the chickens and other sorts of things, becoming ordained as a Baptist minister — something else was happening to John in those early years. John saw the malignancy of racism in Troy, Alabama. There formed in him a sensibility that he had to do something about it. He did not know what that was, but he was convinced that he was called, indeed, to do whatever he could do, get in good trouble, but stop the horror that so many folk lived through and in, in this country, in that part of the 20th century.
John was not alone. Martin King had the same experience as a boy. I had the same experience from age four in the streets of Massillon, Ohio. Matthew McCullough [sp], a pastor whose name you don't know in South Carolina, had the same experience. C.T. Vivian had the same experience. I maintain that many of us had no choice to do what what we tried to do primarily, because at an early age we recognized the wrong under which we were forced to live, and we swore to God, that by God's grace, we would do whatever God called us to do in order to put on the table of the nation's agenda this must end. Black Lives Matter.
And so between 1953 and 1973, we had major campaigns year after year, thousands of demonstrations across the nation that supported it. We had folk in the Congress, folk in the White House, folks scattered across the United States who were beginning to formulate what the solutions are for change. The media makes a mistake when John is seen only in relationship to the voting rights bill of '65. However important that is, you must not remember that in the '60's, Lyndon Johnson and the Congress of the United States passed the most advanced legislation on behalf of we the people of the United States that was ever passed — Head Start. Billions of dollars for housing.
We would not be in the struggle we are today in housing if President Reagan hadn't cut that billions of dollars for housing, where local churches and local nonprofits could build affordable housing in their own communities being sustained and financed by loans from the federal government. We passed Medicare. We passed anti-poverty programs. Civil rights bill '64, '65, voting rights bills. A whole array. John Lewis must be understood as one of the leaders of the greatest advance of Congress and the White House on behalf of we the people of the USA.
We do not need bipartisan politics if we are going to celebrate the life of John Lewis. We need the Constitution to come alive! We hold these truths to be self-evident, we need the Congress and the presidents to work unfalteringly on behalf of every boy and every girl so that every baby born on these shores will have access to the tree of life! That's the only way to honor John Robert Lewis. No other way.
Let all of us in this service today, let all the people of the USA determine that we will not be quiet as long as any child dies in the first year of life in the United States. We will not be quiet as long as the largest poverty group in our nation are women and children. We will not be quiet as long as our nation continues to be the most violent culture in the history of humankind. We will not be quiet as long as our economy is shaped not by freedom but by plantation capitalism that continues to cause domination and control rather than access and liberty and equality for all!
The forces of spiritual wickedness are strong in our land because of our history. We have not created them. John Lewis did not create them. We inherited them. But it's our task to see those spiritual forces. I have named them racism, sexism, violence, plantation capitalism. Those poisons still dominate far too many of us in many different ways. John's life was a singular journey from birth through the campaigns in the South and through Congress, to get us to see that these forces of wickedness must be resisted. Do not let our own hearts drink any of that poison. Instead, drink the truth of the life force. If we would honor and celebrate John Lewis's life, let us then recommit our souls, our minds, our hearts, our bodies, our strength to the continuing journey to dismantle the wrong in our midst, and to allow a space for the new Earth and new heaven to emerge.
I close with this poem from Langston Hughes, which is a kind of a sign and symbol of what John Lewis represents, and what we too can represent in our continuing journey.
"I Dream a World" by Langston Hughes.
I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom's way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind—
Of such I dream, my world!
Celebrate life. Dream and labor. For Atlanta and Los Angeles and the United States and a world. That is to celebrate the spirit and the heart and the mind and soul of John Lewis, and to walk with him through the galaxies, seeking equality, liberty, justice and the beloved community for all. Thank you.
Copyright © James Lawson, 2020
See also In Memory, John Lewis
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