His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope by Jon Meacham

I think Jon Meacham is my “hope” guy when it comes to authors. This book came out a bit before John Lewis died, I believe, but it was so close to it that the timing was almost uncanny. What a life Lewis led. He marched with Dr. King, was on the front lines in Selma, was bruised, battered, beaten, and bloodied by all manners of white supremacists back in the day, arrested dozens of times in peaceful protest over the course of many decades. One of the main tidbits that Meacham writes about is how Lewis was one of the main speakers at the March on Washington in 1963, and how folks like King and others had to get him to tame down his speech because they were in the middle of the fight for the Civil Rights Act, and they didn’t want to alienate President Kennedy — who was already skeptical that the march should take place in the first place. King’s speech is the one that we all remember from that day but Lewis’ was just as relevant, meaningful, and memorable, and he was the one who ended up outlasting everyone. A favorite quote/passage is from RFK, who remarked to Lewis that his thoughts, ideas, and acts had changed him, that he now understood what was going on and he re-dedicated himself to the civil rights effort after his brother died. Again, what a life — and Meacham makes sure that we don’t forget it.

  • John Lewis was as important to the founding of a modern multiethnic 20th and 21st century america as Jefferson, Madison, Adams were to the creation of the republic
  • images of his attack on the Selma (Pettus) bridge helped to push LBJ to call for and pass federal legislation guaranteeing voting rights
  • test of a saint — willingness to suffer and die for others
  • tragedy of america is that we can imagine justice but cannot fully realize it
  • constitution was founded on the dark yet realistic view of human nature — we are fallen, frail and fallible, but our aim was to be “more perfect”
  • Lewis rejected the tragedy of life of life and history, suffocating limits of pragmatism, and instead embraced the possibilities of realizing a joyful ideal
  • X urged african americans to draw on the traditions of the revolution to battle state sanctioned white supremacy in order to claim their rightful place as citizens/Lewis aimed to marshal the effects of religious feelings on the broader republic
  • religious element was essential to the movement
  • when a nation sees differently, it enhances its capacity to act differently
  • quest to rise from despair and injustice to restoration and redemption is the fundamental drama of the hebrew bible and down the ages of the christian west
  • to Lewis, pursuit of justice, of the full equality of all people, was the object of life
  • redemption required suffering
  • community, coming together
  • he asked only that the founding words of the national experiment be logically applied to all
  • he was about horizons, believed hope shaped history
  • the church, for a young lewis, was comforting and restorative
  • self giving love, the more difficult the task, the more he liked it
  • King was his mentor, using organized religion and the emotionalism of the negro church as an instrument, as a vehicle, towards freedom
  • blood and death, pain and loss, sacrifice and the hope of redemption
  • non violence challenged power, force and self
  • love, not power, should have pride of place, generosity, not greed, kindness, not cruelty
  • a love that embraces the hateful and the hurtful
  • “you have to love that person that is hitting you”
  • Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”
  • Lead the Freedom Rides — point was not to conform or give in or be reasonable, but to persist in the cause of repealing unjust laws and coldhearted customs
  • was arrested 45 times total, 40 in the movement, 5 in congress — saw suffering as redemptive and essential
  • the south of the 60’s was born in the 1860’s — Confederate VP Alexander Stephens, was had been fought secure slavery as the “corner-stone” of the breakaway nation
  • “White men alone must manage the South” — Andrew Johnson
  • Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, written before Mockingbird, Atticus Finch was a conventional white racist
  • Lewis’ march on washington speech was going to be a direct assault on JFK, but he toned it down
  • “we want our freedom and we want it now”
  • his speech was tempered passion — Belafonte called it the speech of the march — spoke more simply than King, from the valley, among the people whose burdens he knew because they were his burdens too
  • his humility remained intact as he rose to fame — special grace set him apart as a figure of note and of inspiration
  • RFK told Lewis that the young people of the SNCC had educated me and that he now understood — major turning point
  • 16th st baptist church in Birmingham in 1963 changed the debate of the nonviolent protests
  • Lewis on Kennedy: “When he died, a light went out in america and the nation has never quite been the same since”
  • his death shifted the trajectory of LBJ’s life, and the trajectory of the nation in a sense
  • after problems in mississippi, every day the more radical arm of the movement was swelling a little more/battle of violence vs. nonviolence
  • X: “Never do you find white people encouraging other whites to be nonviolent”
  • civil rights movement was a prominent and perennial target of the FBI
  • FBI spent much of the 60’s on a campaign to neutralize King and to discredit him — obsessed with his private life, but never found anything beyond that
  • “backlash” — connoting white anxieties about the movement had become popular in the summer of 64
  • GOP convention in 64 — Jackie Robinson: “better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany” — until then was a loyal republican
  • 1964 democratic national convention in atlantic city was a turning point in the movement — black delegates from mississippi not allowed to be there
  • government sought to undermine them with FBI run political espionage
  • hypocrisy of america fighting for liberty in Nam while tolerating white supremacy at home informed the movement in those years
  • Lewis was a revolutionary, but at heart he was an American one — vision of an integrated world guided him
  • on the Pettus bridge — forces of good vs. the forces of evil
  • Lewis had his skull fractured and vision blurred, severe concussion
  • “what we should all share, what is the right thing to do, what is just, what is fair” — LBJ address to congress prior to voting rights act/quoted gospel and scripture in his speech
  • the Selma march changed hearts and minds
  • change in america comes most often when the powerless attract the attention of the powerful
  • fits and starts, advances and retreats, good days and bleak ones
  • history is contingent, a succession of compromises and improvisations, world without end
  • to Lewis, history needed hope and harmony/politics was a means to which every man shall dwell under his own vine and fig tree and no one shall make him afraid
  • goal remained an interracial democracy, not a confederation of color
  • arrested 48 hours after the voting rights act was signed, this time in Georgia
  • his christian vision was at once inexhaustible and exhausting
  • riots in 1965 — poverty, police overreach, dearth of hope — growing attention of the movement towards the north and political power, economics, poverty, rage
  • bitterness and frustration was casting significant doubt on the viability of nonviolence
  • Stokely Carmichael defeated Lewis as head of the SNCC in 1966 — Lewis was devastated
  • to many white americans, black power connoted chaos and subversion, bloody revolution and burning cities
  • racism was not situational but systemic
  • Carmichael built his case for radical action that did not depend on the cooperation of whites
  • Lewis was out of tune with the SNCC, lost election on second vote
  • thought that black power drove people apart rather than brought them together
  • national coverage of his falling out with the SNCC over black power was rooted in a white perspective — black power was denounced as un-American
  • exile for Lewis, in a sense
  • was working for Kennedy when MLK was shot/he was in Indy when Kennedy gave a small speech announcing MLK’s death to a largely black crowd
  • Lewis was also there when Kennedy was shot in LA
  • Beloved Community — not hateful, not violent, not separated, not polarized, not locked in struggle, all inclusive world society
  • did more to change america for the better than any single domestic undertaking since the civil war
  • action and reaction, push and pull, american politics is cyclical and changeable
  • Lewis’ life is a reminder that progress, however limited, is possible, and that religiously inspired witness and action can help bring about such progress
  • did his life have consequence? do we live in a better or a worse nation because of him?
  • history honors the marchers at selma, not the police, not Bull Connor
  • individual decisions, individual dispositions of heart and of mind, matter enormously, even if change often feels out of reach
  • “You have to believe that it can be real, that it can be more than a dream”
  • Lewis quotes
  • we have to choose between community and chaos
  • silence is not the answer
  • Spirit of History behind us is stronger than the terror of hatred in front of us
  • if another generation can get in the way or get in what i call good trouble, necessary trouble
  • adversity can breed unity, hatred can give way to love
  • interesting note — voting rights act actually increased white registration and overall turnout as well, potential black backlash effect, potential furthering dividing the south and the country along racial lines

I love books, I have a ton of them, and I take notes on all of them. I wanted to share all that I have learned and will continue to learn. I hope you enjoy.