John Meacham notes at the very end of His Truth is Marching On that he has not attempted to write a full scale biography of John Lewis, but instead “an appreciative account of the major moments of Lewis’s life in the Movement.” I agree with that summation.
We get quick coverage of Lewis’s birth and youth, and then attention to his assimilation of non-violence as found in Christianity, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Finally we are taken through the major civil rights campaigns that Lewis led or participated in.
One of the things I found appealing in the book is that it summarized for me a series of events that I lived through, but ashamedly did not see or feel as deeply as he did or I should have. This is perhaps not surprising as I was a young northerner who grew up in an almost totally white environment. My own unconsciousness of racial issues wasn’t really aroused until my senior year of college in 1959 when I saw my first “colored” water fountains and restrooms on a spring break trip to Florida. Marriage, graduate school, new jobs, and a new family kept me conscious of, but clearly not participating in the movement in any significant way in the ten years after that. I wasn’t asleep through those years yet I think now that I probably thought that starting a new independent life took precedence over the struggle Lewis was engaging in. And I have a feeling that I was not the only young white man from the upper Midwest who used that as an excuse in those days.
Looking back now at Lewis’s courage in the face of constant adversarial challenges is something that stands out on every page of Meacham’s book. Lewis comes off as neither utopian or cynical, but as a realist who was steadfastly willing to take a punch without responding in order to move the fight forward to another round. Always step forward, never back.
Definitely new to me was how dependant Lewis’s philosophy was on education and on sessions at the Highlander Folk School. This was a philosophy oriented summer camp spearheaded by a labor organizer named Myles Horton. It was integrated and focused on the “love your neighbor” admonishment of Christianity. Rosa Parks went there in 1955 before the Montgomery Bus boycott and at other times Martin Luther King went there, Pete Seeger went there, and even Eleanor Roosevelt went there. John Lewis attended sessions in 1958 before launching the 1960 Louisville lunch counter sit-ins.
Having just finished reading Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, I am now much more attuned to the systemic racism that Lewis was working against. The fight, as was pointed out by historian Arthur Schlesinger at the time, was to finally attack the white unconscious belief that there was a necessary inferiority in skins of a darker color. Although Plessy vs Ferguson in 1896 sanctioned separate but equal, Justice John Marshall Harlan in dissent was already writing that there was no superior caste in America and that the Constitution is color blind. And there in a nutshell was the “Movement” of the 1960’s.
Another strong point of the book was its reminder of just how many forces were aligned against the Movement. We now seem to think that the sixties produced a marvelous groundswell of change and all we need to do is clean things about around the edges. Unfortunately we have mostly forgotten that the March on Washington of August, 1963 was deemed too radical and too strident for over 60% of the American public. Although Robert Kennedy told Lewis that he had changed his mind after the March on Washington, the November assassination of JFK ushered in the realization that non-violent protest might not be enough.
Meacham impressively steers us through how difficult it was for Lewis to keep to MLK’s 1961 admonition of “We will meet your physical force with soul force.” On “Bloody Sunday” March7, 1965 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge John Lewis took the first blow from a billy club wielded by a “peace officer” and ended up with a skull fracture. In that year of the march from Selma to Montgomery there continued to be bloody events.
By 1966 the “Black Power” movement was gaining steam as people like Stokley Carmichael and Malcolm X entered the fray. In July of 1966, John Lewis found himself removed as head of SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee)—a group he had heroically led for a number of years. He had become according to Meacham, an “expendable commodity, a former leader.” Lewis was disheartened and backed off. He found renewed relevance by attaching himself to the campaign of Robert Kennedy only to be hit a final hammer blow in 1968 when both Bobby and MLK were assassinated.
That is where Meacham ends his story. There is no attempt to deal with the post 1960’s when Lewis went on to become a political icon in the US House of Representatives and that is just fine. The salient details have been covered. Meacham quotes him as saying then what you have to do is just “Keep pickin em up and putten em down” Always step forward, never back. We are left with the knowledge that the march toward that “more perfect union” is still sadly unfinished.
Aug 63 (we had just returned from a summer in Europe and were moving to Monmouth