By Sheila Johnson
John Lewis was not necessarily a friend, or even a colleague, but he was someone with whom I shared more than a few moments of camaraderie over the years. He and I often traveled, for example, in the same Washington, DC circles, so it was not unusual for our paths to cross every now and then.What’s more, a few years back I invited the Alabama-born civil rights pioneer to Cambridge to speak to a group of fellows at Harvard, extraordinary young men and women of color who were participating in a leadership program I was sponsoring at the school.
As a result, I was privileged to hear Mr. Lewis speak on more than one occasion about his experience on “Bloody Sunday,” and of his crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside of Selma – a bridge that, if there’s even trace amounts of poetic justice out there, will soon be renamed in his honor.
But the reason I’m writing this day isn’t to necessarily praise the civil rights legend and a guy who, as a young man, often walked arm-in-arm with the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in pursuit of a higher calling. After all, people much better with words than I have already done that.
Instead, I’d like to tell you about a thought I had this morning over coffee, as I was watching yet another statue topple in yet another American city, while in the background yet another protest had escalated into a violent confrontation between those protesting and those trying to muzzle them.
That thought I had was this: John Lewis learned first-hand from Dr. King something that we desperately – desperately – need at this very moment in time, especially as the subject of racial justice sits front and center in our national consciousness.
And what the late Mr. Lewis learned from Dr. King was the power of non-violent resistance to win hearts and minds. He learned from the master and understood deeply that, if there’s any way to get people to do more than simply take notice of a cause, and to move them to such a degree that they’ll actually consider supporting it, it’s by never, ever raising your fist or voice in anger.
It is by being respectful, strong and resolute, all at the same time. It is by taking the blows of those who would hate and by turning the other cheek whenever those blows rain down.
Being willing to do that, of course, is not easy. It takes an incredible amount of courage, will and conviction, three things that will ultimately earn a level of respect from onlookers than no bully with a closed fist will ever achieve.
A few years back, for example, when all those conspiracy nuts were out there frothing at the mouth and claiming President Barrack Obama was not a U.S. citizen, a weaker man might have engaged them and attempted to refute their insipid claim. It took incredible moral courage, on the other hand, for the president to turn a deaf ear to all those empty barrels and to go about his business of not just running this country, but carving out a path for himself through its history. Mr. Obama, you see, gained more respect and won more hearts by not engaging than he ever would have by trying to expose those conspiracy nuts for being exactly who they were.
What I fear now is that all these little violent flare ups in our nation’s streets and all these video clips of statues falling, and rocks and bottles being thrown, are slowly eroding the support behind movement – if not the prevailing mood of Middle America.
Convincing those already in the street protesting should not be the intent of any protest. That’s a given. To the contrary, the intent of any civil rights protest should be to convince all those at home in front of their TV, many of them white, law-abiding men and women raised to believe that all men are created equal.
Yet, the more those protesters flash their anger and the more they come across as aggressors, defilers, and even anarchists, the less likely it is that all those at home watching – men and women whose support will ultimately spell the difference between the success and failure of the movement – will maintain the early support they’ve clearly shown.
John Lewis understood this. He learned it firsthand from one of the greatest Americans of all time. And though, as I said, I didn’t know Lewis well, I truly think I knew him well enough to say he would want us to know that the torch Dr. King passed to him was now being passed to us.
And, as such, it is now our choice.
Do we raise our fists in anger, or do we raise our commitment to the kind of non-violent resistance that Dr. King personally taught John Lewis and that Lewis, in turn, taught us by example?
For the sake of the memory of the humble and decent man known as the “Conscience of the Congress,” if not the realization of something he worked every day of his life to attain – a social and moral awakening that, for the first time ever, feels real and even possible in America – I sure hope it’s the latter.
Eat and live well, my friends. And God bless.