April 17, 2021

John Lewis - Walking with the Wind

Book recommendations by Randall Warner, Thessaloniki Chapter Chair

Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, by John Lewis with Michael    D’Orso, Simon & Schuster Trade Paperback edition, 2012 ISBN 978-1-4767-9771-7

Later this year, the 117th Congress plans to reintroduce the bill referred to as H.R.4, named in honor of the late Georgia congressman. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act  restores key provisions of President Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 Voting Rights Act which  ensured that locations with a history of discrimination in voting must receive pre-  clearance from the federal government before changing voting procedures. These provisions were gutted by the Supreme Court decision of Shelby v. Holder in 2013. The bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL), said the House will hold hearings during  2021 to build the case defending the bill from the pandemic of court challenges it will inevitably face when enacted.

“Some battles are long and hard, and you have to have staying power. Firecrackers go off in a flash, then leave nothing but ashes. I prefer a pilot light. The flame is nothing flashy, but once it is lit, it doesn’t go out. It burns steadily, and it burns forever.” – John Lewis

Beloved Community

John Robert Lewis was born in 1940, the third of ten children in a family sharecropping cotton in Pike County, Alabama. As a youngster, between school work and field work, he cared for the family’s chickens, which he determined also included their souls, baptizing baby chicks in the brook next to the farmhouse. He was a teenager when he heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preach a radio sermon about the social gospel he made known as the Beloved Community. Lewis’s path led him to the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, joining other students practicing nonviolence in lunch counter sit-ins at the downtown department and five-and-dime stores.

His role in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) began there, recruiting and organizing others to work peacefully for desegregation, and presaging the Freedom Ride of 1961 from Washington to Birmingham and beyond. Lewis was one of the thirteen original Freedom Riders boarding the two Greyhound and Trailway buses. He was elected SNCC Chairperson prior to August 28, 1963 March on Washington, and was the youngest Black leader to speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day.

“If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South; through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham. But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today. By the force of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy. We must say: “Wake up America! Wake up!” 

From there SNCC fought for voter registration in many parts of the South, culminating in the violence and murders of freedom workers in the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964, and the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and march to Montgomery by locals and by national Black leaders in 1965. Lewis’ bloody beating and concussion at the hands of Alabama State Troopers became a symbol of the battle for civil rights of Blacks. President Lyndon Johnson’s Voting Rights Act was signed into law August 6, 1965.

Voter registration fueled John Lewis’s labors throughout his years as SNCC Chairperson and in his community organizing in Atlanta and across the South in the decade that followed. He grew to believe that the Civil Rights Movement 1961-1966 was at base a religious phenomenon, church-born and church-sanctioned, with the church being the point of access to the movement for almost every community.

The Young Apostle of Nonviolence

The war in Vietnam raged, and so did wars in the streets of Watts, Newark, Chicago, Detroit. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s stance against war cried out in his April 7, 1967 sermon at New York’s Riverside Church. Black Power rose to challenge nonviolence. Dr. King was murdered in Memphis and Robert F. Kennedy killed in Los Angeles. John Lewis persisted in his crusade for voting rights, registering 1.5 million new voters under the Southern Regional Council’s Voter Education Project.  LBJ’s 1965 Voting Rights Act was set to expire in 1975 and Congress renewed it. Time Magazine named John Lewis “the young apostle of nonviolence” in a cover story featuring “living saints.”

Walking with the Wind

Lewis turned his sights to working for nonviolence at the national level, running and losing the 1976 race to fill Georgia’s 5th District Congressional seat, vacated by Andrew Young to become Jimmy Carter’s United Nations Ambassador, but in 1986 Lewis defeated Julian Bond for the same seat. He recalls walking down the empty Atlanta streets at 3:00 am the mile and a half from his campaign HQ to the Westin Hotel to accept victory as “with all the walking I had done in my life, with all the marches I had ever made, this was the sweetest. This was the best. I was walking with the wind.”

Pilot Light: Upholding Nonviolence, Social Action and Interracial Democracy

John Lewis’s memoir speaks in a frank, fluid, unwavering and often joyful voice. It is a suspenseful and wonderfully paced chronicle of a critical chapter in the ongoing ordeal of racism in America. And the record of an extraordinary life, from embracing of Dr. King’s Beloved Community; to the frontlines of sit-ins and freedom marches; to his membership in the Pantheon of fellow Civil Rights leaders A. Philip Randolph, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, James Farmer, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, Bayard Rustin, Fanny Lou Hamer, Diane Nash, Amelia Boynton, and Dr. King himself. When taking office in Washington in 1986 Lewis pledged to represent Georgia’s 5th District and “to uphold nonviolence, social action, and a truly interracial democracy,” and served those ends for thirty-four years until his death in July 2020. 

Read and View More

Moon U.S. Civil Rights Trail: A Traveler’s Guide to the People, Places and Events that Made the Movement, by Deborah D. Douglas, Moon Travel Guides, 2021. ISBN-13: 9781640499157 2021. Moon Travel Guides, published by Avalon Travel, an imprint of Perseus Books, a Hachette Book Group company.  And view:  https://civilrightstrail.com

The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This is Our Song, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Penguin Press, 2021. ISBN 978-1-9848-8033-8.