Two days after John Lewis died on Friday at age 80, I called Congressman Danny K. Davis, who knew Lewis personally for two decades and recently sat with him on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
“I think John had the seniority to be chairman of Ways and Means, but he didn’t want to be chairman,” Davis said. “He was the second-ranking guy on the committee and he was chairman of the sub-committee, but he was the same way in committee business and hearings and discussions — just John Lewis. You couldn’t help but love him and he will go down in history as one of the most revered members of the Congress who ever lived.”
Davis said that Lewis was “unpretentious, easy to get along with, easy to deal with,” and never “got too carried away with himself and who he was. He was a very common, decent guy. Just the essence of decency. The essence of honesty. The essence of integrity. The essence of virtue.”
About a week before his death, I watched Good Trouble, a new documentary about Lewis’ more than 60 years of social activism.
In the film, the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates described an episode of “Finding Your Roots,” where he showed Lewis the 1867 voter card of his great-great-grandfather — the last member of Lewis’ family to vote before the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“The vote is the most powerful instrument, the most powerful non-violent tool in a democratic society,” Lewis told Gates on “Finding Your Roots”. “And knowing that a member of my family registered and voted in Alabama, 100 years before I did, before my mother, my father, my grandparents — it’s amazing. So maybe, just maybe, it is part of my DNA, my bloodline, whatever you want to call it.”
If Lewis’ great-great-grandfather knew that his descendant would put his teenage body on the line — would offer his face and skull to lynch mobs and Alabama State Troopers as a living sacrifice on the burnt altar of American democracy — what would he think?
On Monday, I took the first book in Taylor Branch’s seminal trilogy Parting the Waters off the shelf and opened it for the first time in a long time, in order to imagine the human dimensions of that historic, century-long democratic void.
Perhaps Lewis’ ancestor would feel the kind of dread felt by James Farmer Sr., whose son, James Farmer Jr., was among what Branch described as a “motley collection” of people, ages 21 to 60, who decided in the summer of 1961 to embark on a Greyhound bus trip through the segregated South. The riders wanted to push federal and state governments to enforce a series of Supreme Court decisions that rendered segregated public buses unconstitutional.
Lewis had prepared for that summer a year earlier, while attending college in Nashville. He was among a group of students who attempted to desegregate the city’s businesses by sitting-in at lunch counters.
“White men kicked them,” a reporter for the Tennessean wrote in an article published in February to mark the 60th anniversary of the sit-ins. “They spat and blew cigar smoke in their faces. They extinguished lit cigarettes on their backs.”
And after all that, John Lewis went to jail.
“When a policeman said, ‘You’re under arrest’ to John Lewis, a lifetime of absorbed tattoos against any kind of trouble with the law quickened into terror” and dread, which gave way “to an exhilaration unlike any he had ever known,” Branch writes.
By the time he got off of the bus in Rock Hill, South Carolina on May 9, 1961, Lewis had shaken his fears and was well-versed and trained in non-violent resistance. In fact, Lewis was so confident in his convictions that he volunteered to be the first person among the motley collection to test the white mob that greeted them at the entrance of the whites-only waiting room inside of the Rock Hill Greyhound terminal.
“I have a right to go in here on grounds of the Supreme Court decision in the Boynton case,” Lewis started before a pause, “followed by a reply of ‘Shit on that’ and a shoving of Lewis back and forth in the doorway,” Branch writes. “One of the attackers threw a punch that caught Lewis in the mouth, making the first loud pop of fist against flesh on the Freedom Ride.”
On May 13, the Freedom Riders dined with Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta to celebrate “a successful journey through nearly seven hundred miles of upper Dixie.” But amid the revelry, King sensed trouble ahead for the riders at their next destination — Alabama, the state where Lewis was born and from which King had just returned.
“You will never make it through Alabama,” King “whispered emotionally” to Simeon Booker, a Black reporter for Jet magazine, one of “only three reporters,” all of them Black, who took an interest in the Freedom Ride.
Booker, who had embedded himself with the riders on their long journey through the South, responded to King in jest.
“He’s the only one I can outrun,” Booker quipped about the “hulking” Farmer. Booker joked with King that the group of riders “planned to leave Farmer behind to occupy any white hoodlums who might chase them.”
Later that night, Farmer was woken from his sleep with a phone call from his mother. His father — the first Black man to earn a Ph.D. in Texas and a notable theologian — had died.
Farmer Sr. “had asked to see ‘Junior’s itinerary’ that night in his Washington hospital bed and, noting that Junior would cross into Alabama the next day, had promptly fallen into a coma and died. Mrs. Farmer would always insist that the old man had willed his own death in order to save his son’s life by forcing him to come home for the funeral.”
There was no such escape latch for John Lewis, whose life of bodily sacrifice culminated in Alabama, on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge — a structure named after a former Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader. On March 7, 1965, during a march for voting rights, Lewis’ skull was fractured by the club of an Alabama State Trooper.
Since Lewis’ death 55 years later, Democrats in the House have rekindled the fight to restore the Voting Rights Act, which was effectively neutered with Shelby County vs. Holder, the 2013 Supreme Court decision that stripped the federal government of the power to prevent voter suppression, immediately plunging the country back into the void of the 1960s — when John Lewis risked death to force the government to give him his right to vote, and to stop segregation on public buses and in restaurants.
You’d be hard pressed to find more than a handful of Republicans in the House and Senate willing to restore the act; they will, however, tweet tributes.
This is what democracy looks like.