“If you’re not hopeful and optimistic, then you just give up. You have to take the long hard look and just believe that if you’re consistent, you will succeed.” — John Lewis
U.S. Rep. John Lewis died Friday. He was 80 years old, and he was known as one of the Big Six organizers of the 1963 March on Washington.
His participation in the march across the Selma, Alabama, Edmund Pettus Bridge brought national recognition of the brutality of the segregated South. Lewis was severely beaten and almost killed by Alabama State troopers.
Many people believe his (and others’) sacrifice that day led powerfully to the adoption of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He was a civil rights icon who voiced the plight of Black and poor people. He was known as “the conscience of the Congress” and had the respect of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
Remembering the history of a person like John Lewis is one thing. Learning the lessons of his legacy is quite another.
There are many lessons that Lewis’ life left to us if we are willing to be good students.
• He has taught us the fight for racial justice is a marathon and not a sprint. Systemic/institutional racism is so deeply embedded in the structure of America that it will not be dismantled overnight. While Lewis had great accomplishments, he also experienced great disappointments. Through it all, he maintained hope and understood that the race toward justice is not given to the swift but to those who endure until the end.
• His life and legacy remind us that white supremacists will use whatever means at their disposal to attempt to maintain the status quo. Lewis was not beaten by the KKK but by people who were commissioned “to protect and serve.” White supremacists will rewrite laws, enact ordinances that deny health care, maintain economic disparity, defend police brutality, produce false narratives, and physically beat and murder those who fight for justice. You cannot tell a white supremacist by the way they look. Only their actions reveal the depth of their racism. They are dangerous and will perform any act to maintain privilege and power.
• Lewis’ life demonstrates that true allies are determined not by skin color but by their commitment to justice. During the height of the civil rights era, lots of Black people were opposed to the movement, and lots of white people stood shoulder to shoulder with Lewis. In this age of spin, we too must remember that they who are for us are not against us, and they who are against us are not for us. I learned from John Lewis that one must not only pick one’s battles well, but one must also pick one’s allies with wisdom.
• Lewis believed that the God of hope stands with those who fight the good fight. Lewis did not employ supernaturalism to correct the evils he saw in this society. Instead, he realized that since human beings constructed the systems of racism, economic disparity, brutality and the other social evils all around us, human effort can dismantle the evils we experience. The God of Lewis grounded his hope, enlivened his courage and confirmed that his work was not in vain.
Too often the hyperspiritual want God to undo our messes instead of giving us the wisdom and courage to stand against the sociopolitical Goliaths in our lives. Lewis knew that the God of hope empowers the warrior for justice and has placed the power to overcome in our hands. Give me the God of hope that Lewis revered. That God is the God we need.
I honor Rep. John Lewis, and I give thanks to both God and history for his lessons. May he rest in peace, and may we live in a manner that honors his legacy.
The Rev. C.W. Dawson Jr. was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy at MU. He teaches at Columbia College and Moberly Area Community College and writes for the Missourian.