Written by Dr. Joel Wiggins, President
“To put complicated matters simply: John Robert Lewis embodied the traits of a saint in the classical Christian sense of the term.”
(Jon Meacham, His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope)
Lewis was one of the 20th Century’s (indeed the early 21st Century’s) greatest figures.
Born into a poor sharecropping family in Pike County, Alabama in 1940, Lewis bent the “arc of history” in the direction of justice.
He never accepted injustice as inevitable. A man of deep Christian convictions, he robed his faith in courageous action. On Saturday, February 27, 1960, he and some friends sat down at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Nashville.
After being denied service by the waitress and insulted (“Get back to Africa, boy”) by young white hoodlums seeking to egg him into a fight, he was punched, kicked, knocked to the floor, burned with cigarette butts, and spat upon. When the police finally came, he and his comrades were arrested for disorderly conduct. “It became a badge of honor,” he later recalled of his first arrest.
Between 1960 and 1966 he was arrested 40 times in protesting the Jim Crow laws and customs of America!
In 1961, he joined the first Freedom Riders on a bus from Washington D.C. to New Orleans. At 10:23 on Saturday morning, May 20, Lewis stepped off the bus at the Greyhound bus terminal in Montgomery, Alabama.
Within seconds he and most of the other Freedom Riders were attacked by a group of 200 whites who had been waiting for their bus to arrive. Given 10 minutes by the police to “teach them niggers a lesson,” they proceeded to pummel and send several to the hospital, including Lewis who was knocked unconscious when struck by a large Coca-Cola crate.
In Selma, Alabama, on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, Lewis led a peaceful march across the Pettus Bridge (named after a Confederate General and former Grand Dragon of the KKK). A group of about 625 marchers had just begun the first Selma to Montgomery march. As they neared the end of the bridge, they encountered a group of Alabama State and Selma police, some on foot, some on horseback.
Told to return to their church, they asked to confer with Major John Cloud, the leader of the lawmen. When refused, they began to kneel to pray. But there was no time to pray as the lawmen charged the marchers. Lewis was the first to go down, thwacked in the head by an officer’s billy club.
His skull fractured and vision blurred, he thought he was going to die on the bridge. “It’s OK,” he thought, “I am doing what I am supposed to do.”
He didn’t die and he continued doing what he was supposed to do. Two weeks later, a bandaged Lewis locked arms with Martin Luther King on a second attempt of the 55-mile march from Selma to Montgomery. This time they succeeded.
Less than five months later Lewis joined a few other black leaders at a private meeting in the White House and later that day, Friday, August 6, stood nearby in the Capitol as President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Within 48 hours he was in jail again—this time in Americus, GA—for supporting integrated voter registration lines!
In 1985, Atlantans elected Lewis to the House of Representatives, a seat he held for 35 years until he died last year of pancreatic cancer at the age of 80.
Shortly before his death, Lewis articulated what inspired his 60-year journey of seeking justice, peace, and the beloved community via nonviolent action: “The journey begins with faith…The journey is sustained by persistence…And the journey is informed by hope.”
“The journey begins with faith…The journey is sustained by persistence…And the journey is informed by hope.”
As we near the mid-point of Black History Month, Crown College remembers those, like Lewis, who put their bodies—their very lives—on the line so that everyone in this country could experience full citizenship.
And we continue to desire, and pray, and seek, and work toward that goal 60 years after Lewis’ first arrest. Too many still face economic inequities, social discrimination, political hurdles, systematic racism, and educational challenges simply due to the color of their skin.
Challenging the indifference and lack of concern of white clergy in Birmingham, Martin Luther King penned in his famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He went on to write: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel is often credited with the statement, “The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference.” The Holocaust survivor Wiesel knew more than a little of what he was saying.
I believe there is a link between indifference and injustice just as there is a strong link between love and justice.
In the weeks before George Floyd was killed on May 25, 2020, I was working my way through Taylor Branch’s magisterial trilogy on the Civil Rights Movement—all 2,306 pages of it.
The Holy Spirit used Floyd’s death and Taylor’s writings to challenge my sin of indifference and require of me fruits of repentance.
I decided that there were many things I could do. One of the most significant is to teach a course on Biblical Justice and The Civil Rights Movement, 1954-68.
Beginning March 16th, I will begin teaching this course that weds my twin passions of history and theology and forces me to continue to think through some difficult and complex realities of our world today.
Black History Month, 2021, is taking on a meaning for me like none before. It is a journey of faith, of persistence, and of hope. May it be for you as well.