As a boy, John Lewis wanted to be a preacher, but much of his life’s message he ended up conveying without words.
The Pulitzer Prize winning historian Jon Meacham explores Lewis’ message in the book “His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope.” Mr. Meacham, a biographer of presidents (Jefferson, Jackson, and others) chronicles the life of Lewis from his boyhood in the segregated South through his involvement in the Civil Rights movement from 1954 to 1968.
“Those were the years of maximum physical danger for him,” says Mr. Meacham, in an interview with the Monitor. The biography comes on the heels of Lewis’ death in July. “His life in the movement, to me, offered this clear and compelling case study in what the power of gospel can do when it’s marshaled by extraordinary believers.”
Lewis, who chose the text of Matthew 10:34 as the subject for his senior sermon at American Baptist Theological Seminary, endured beatings for his beliefs.
Trained in nonviolent direct action by the Rev. James Lawson Jr. in Nashville while still in seminary, Lewis played an integral part in desegregating public accommodations in the South. He took beatings during the early 1960s sit-in campaigns to desegregate lunch counters, the 1961 Freedom Rides to integrate bus stations, and then again during the well-known march across the bridge in Selma for voting rights. Lewis explained his motivation.
“There was something deep down within me, moving me, that I could no longer be satisfied or go along with an evil system, that I had to be maladjusted to it,” said Lewis, after the sit-ins, of segregation. “In spite of all of this, I had to keep loving the people who denied me service.”
A turning point for the young Lewis is described in the book’s final chapter, titled “This Country Don’t Run on Love,” a quote from the individual who replaced Lewis as chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1966. The persistent violence turned many in SNCC away from the ideals that helped usher in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
“I made a decision that it didn’t matter what happened – I would continue to advocate the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence, that I believed in the interracial democracy,” said Lewis, after losing his position in a contentious election.
Although the book stops after the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, Lewis’ career continued and would include more than 30 years as a U.S. congressman representing Georgia. Lewis could have succumbed to despair after King’s death. Instead, drawing on his faith, he sought to right wrongs from inside the government.
Like Lewis, “if we could bring our profession of our ideals closer to the reality of practice, we’d be better off,” Mr. Meacham says.
While the history of the last two decades of Lewis’ political career remain to be written (his memoir “Walking With the Wind” was published in 1998), Mr. Meacham puts forward Lewis as an example of faith worth following.
“He led with his life,” says the author. “He didn’t just talk about it, he did it.”