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

  • 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

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Adam Marks

Adam Marks

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.