U.S. Rep. John Lewis is one of the moral leaders who had the foresight and resolve to know that his life as a student and activist would affect the larger narrative of our country.
WE have much to learn from our living leaders as we reflect on the close of Black History Month — especially from our moral leaders, those who seem to possess a vision that includes posterity’s right to peace and justice, leaders who lead without hubris. These individuals are not saints or mythical heroes but everyday people, many who found their stride as students.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis is one of the moral leaders who had the foresight and resolve to know that his life as a student and activist would affect the larger narrative of our country. Lewis’ accolades include some of the highest honors in the nation, including the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as well as numerous honorary degrees and book awards. Before beginning his prolific career in political office, Lewis, in his young life, paved a path for resolute and purposeful activism and nonviolent organizing that belied his young age.
Lewis, who spoke at the University of Washington on Thursday, and other student activists drew inspiration from the 1958 comic book “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” published the year Lewis turned 17. By that time, Lewis had already begun fighting discrimination: At 16, he had led other black children in an (unsuccessful) effort to get library cards at the closest public library.
As a college student, Lewis had the temerity to organize sit-ins at lunch counters throughout the South, and as a student, at 21, became one of the youngest members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Rep. Lewis participated in freedom rides, traveling through states where whites and blacks traveling together were prohibited. As one of the “Big Six” leaders in the civil rights movement, Lewis was the youngest keynote speaker at the March on Washington. He was 23.
The movement was peaceful by design but sometimes ended in violence. Lewis endured more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and beatings, yet maintained his leadership and commitment to the nonviolent movement as he and others worked to bring attention to the need for justice. While working against voter disenfranchisement in his home state of Alabama, Lewis helped organize and lead the march from Selma, Alabama, in 1965 and was among the 600 marchers who were attacked by state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
While Lewis, and students around the country, engaged in various forms of political action and local organizing, they were building and modeling the beloved community they envisioned. To fight to create and protect the shared ideal of a beloved community, the students and community activists began with protests, boycotts and civic action but knew it was not an end within itself. As Lewis’ friend and mentor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “noncooperation and boycotts are … merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation.”
College campuses and social activism have often gone hand-in-hand since the inception of the American university. For Lewis, direct action toward redemptive communities seemed part of his development as a student and as the kind of citizen we most need now. When he spoke to thousands at the March on Washington, he called forth the need to pursue justice and equity, and kept the intention of the movement at the forefront.
What lessons can we, as citizens and students, learn from a living moral leader, someone who seemed to understand the moment he was acting in as well as the larger historical narrative of our nation? Did he know that his larger action and activism in SNCC would lay the groundwork for his service work as a congressman? In examining the life and work of Lewis, there are questions we must answer: What is our part of the larger narrative? What sacrifices are we making, and for whose benefit? How do we model justice within the movement?
But most important, what is our responsibility to that concept of a community that is worthy of belovedness? Perhaps our students will best answer this question now.