The late Congressman John Lewis details his journey from a young sharecropper to a civil rights pioneer crossing that famous bridge where he and other activists changed American history.
John Lewis, a “lion of the civil rights movement,” chaired the groundbreaking Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and participated in its Freedom Rides in 1961. During the 1962 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his immortal “I Have a Dream Speech,” Lewis was the youngest keynote speaker. In 1965, when he marched across the Edmund Pettus bridge outside Selma, Alabama to demonstrate for civil rights, an Alabama state trooper beat him severely and left him with a skull fracture. Lewis became a member of the US House of Representatives from Georgia in 1981 and served as “the conscience of the Congress” until his death in July 2020. This book is his remarkable memoir, told with straightforwardness, clarity and little sentimentality.
Lewis details his journey through rural Alabama, the 1960s-era voting rights protests and Congress. With vivid detail and a front-row perspective, Lewis offers an inspirational spiritual and practical discussion about bigotry, discrimination and the quest for truth. He provides a relevant, timely map for change and a call for civil action.
In the civil rights movement, we actively and consciously utilized the power of faith to move our society forward.
When asked how he faced racism and civilian and police violence, Lewis always answered: “Faith.” Faith enabled civil rights activists to face angry mobs, attack dogs, baseball bats and jail cells.
In his autobiography, John Lewis never mistakes patience for passivity or defeatism. He describes, with frustration and pride, how the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was spanned a 100-year journey since the Civil War. The 15th Amendment to the US Constitution, which granted Black people the right to vote, was ratified in 1870. Restrictive US and state governments created “grandfather clauses” to limit that right. Lewis highlights the bitter absurdity of these clauses: Citizens could vote only if their grandfathers had voted prior to the Civil War. People who lived in enslavement before the war – the entire African-American population of the Confederate states – could not vote. Lewis’ emotions run strong when he writes of the disenfranchisement of these newly freed citizens.
Change requires patience and persistent action.
Lewis cites the ever-present threat of violence from the Ku Klux Klan. He laments that even in the mid-1960s, only a fraction of Selma’s potential Black voters dared to register. Lewis and other activists organized peaceful protests. He downplays the ferocity of the police attacks as he downplays his own astonishing courage. The images of local whites beating protesters, spraying them with fire hoses and loosing savage dogs upon them had a profound impact on American public opinion. Lewis is hardly celebratory as he relates the process of Congress passing the Voting Rights Act, which banned discriminatory voter registration tests. Lewis notes ruefully that American racists – some of them elected officials – still legally challenge the act and still seek to suppress voters today.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Lewis reveals that he admired and emulated Martin Luther King Jr.’s educational path. He recounts that King won a prestigious award in high school, but he felt humiliated afterward when he had to relinquish his seat on a segregated bus. Such incidents, Lewis asserts, only increased King’s determination.
We did not just wake up one day and decide to march on Washington or from Selma to Montgomery. We studied, we strategized, we organized, trained and prepared to take action.
By age 19, King had earned an undergraduate degree from Morehouse College. At age 23, he finished his doctorate in theology and ministry (divinity) at Boston College. As a teenager, Lewis heard King speak on the radio. King’s southern cadences and strong faith led Lewis to recognize himself in King’s voice.
Lewis states repeatedly that truth is a force that no one can tarnish. But, he notes, systemic racist forces can hide the truth and misconstrue it to disrupt the public’s grasp of it.
The civil rights movement was more than a struggle over legal rights, it was a spiritual movement led by ministers who wanted to confront the erroneous belief that some of us are more valuable or important than others and to demonstrate the truth of human equality.
Armed with the truth, Lewis and his peers sought to reveal the lies used to justify segregation. Those lies included, foremost, the inferiority of Black Americans. Lewis tells with modesty how, through nonviolent protests and civil disobedience, activists showed fundamental truths about the common bonds that unite everyone.
In 1961, Lewis participated in the Freedom Rides in which 13 civil rights activists, seven of whom were Black, rode side-by-side on a bus from Washington, DC through the south. Lewis downplays the courage of this nonviolent display which violated local segregation laws. He writes that he was prepared to meet his death. A mob in South Carolina beat him and other Freedom Riders because Lewis tried to use a “whites only” restroom.
Lewis is proud that young activists in South Africa, Russia, Germany, Egypt and other countries studied, followed and adapted tactics he used in the US civil rights movement.
Sharecropping and Humiliation
The racist and inequitable practice of sharecropping forced Lewis and his family to work endless hours to pay off debts that local whites structured to keep them in financial bondage. Lewis describes the system with loathing: it undervalued the work of impoverished farmers and inflated the cost of farming supplies and equipment. Sharecroppers could never draw even.
Sharecropping took many forms in different states, but mainly it was a system designed to make us fail. Our work was undervalued, our debt inflated, making it almost impossible to get ahead.
Lewis recalls learning his initial lesson in racism and humiliation at age six. He made his first trip to town with his father, who sold the family’s crops, paid down his debt and bought new supplies. Lewis felt excited until he heard a white storekeeper call his father “boy.”
The Edmund Pettus Bridge
The showdown on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, between activists and state troopers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge made history. Lewis says that even as he faced violence, he felt “peace,” not fear. That moment expressed his spiritual commitment to the quest for equality, dignity and liberation. He believes that perpetuating hatred holds bigots and segregationists hostage to evil instead of knitting them to the universal divine rights everyone possesses.
It did not matter that I was looking down the barrel of a gun or an army of guns. It did not matter that troopers were on horseback ready to fire tear gas.
This is a singular, stirring memoir. Lewis’s fighting spirit and his determination to counter racism in America never flagged. Yet his powerful faith enabled him to write of his and his people’s struggle with an astonishing lack of bitterness or resentment. His tone is as inspirational as his life of activism.