He was born John Robert Lewis in a wooden house that had no electricity in Troy, Alabama. He had ten siblings, including a brother who was born deaf. His mother called him Robert. As a child he played and ran through the 120 acres his father owned with twenty siblings and cousins. He loved the life of his childhood. Something made him different.
At fifteen he wrote a letter to Dr. King saying he wanted to integrate the high school in Troy. Dr. King called him “the boy from Troy.” Washing dishes at American Baptist Seminary in Nashville, he studied nonviolence, the way of Gandhi and Thoreau with Reverend James Lawson. By 1963 he had been arrested forty times.
When, in the summer of 1962, I first saw him sitting in the corner of a small church in Cairo, Illinois, I knew who he was. John Lewis was a Freedom Rider. I gazed at him with wonder on that morning in southern Illinois. John was twenty-two years old. That summer he had asked the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) for ten dollars so he could work in Virginia, but for some reason Jim Forman had sent him to Cairo. I had never been in the South and I probably had never heard anyone from Alabama speak. Then, in that small church, he got up to speak. Though there might have been as few as fifteen people there, his voice exploded across the room with passion. I was transfixed. I would not leave the movement for another two years and in another sense I would never leave John.
In 1963 I moved to Atlanta to work full time for SNCC. John had a small apartment in West Atlanta and asked me to move in with him. Our third roommate was Sam Shirah, a white student organizer, who was also from Troy. Growing up in Troy, John seldom saw a white person. His mother wouldn’t let him buy ice cream at the drugstore because they made the “colored” children sit outside on a bench. Last year my wife, Nancy, and I ate lunch with John in that drugstore. Everyone wanted to shake his hand. Now Troy celebrates a “John Lewis Day.” Both Sam’s great-grandfathers fought for the Confederacy. John’s were slaves.
John had a quiet, naive side. It was easy to underestimate him, and throughout his life many people did. That is because in many ways he never changed from what he was—a farm boy from Alabama. In 1997 I had a show in Atlanta and John came to visit. I was very excited that he was coming to the opening. I stepped outside the building to greet him. He was sitting in the driver’s seat of a car. “Notice something?” said John. “No,” I answered, standing by the window. “I’m driving,” he said. John was fifty-seven and had just learned to drive.
In late January, when I learned of John’s diagnosis, I flew to Washington to stay with him in his home. By then he was mortally ill, and we knew we might never see each other again. He lay in bed with a large picture of his mother by his bedside. I stayed upstairs in a guest room. Fifty-seven years earlier we had been roommates. We were roommates again. Each morning I made tea in the basement, then carried it upstairs to sit by his side.
A few weeks ago he said on the phone, “I am going back to Atlanta.” John said they had stopped the treatment. It was no longer doing any good. John wanted to be home with the things he had collected with Lillian. In the very corner of his bed where he slept and would die were a group of SNCC posters and photographs. Every one of them was made by me. In the open attached garage were John’s cats and kittens. He fed them every day, just as he had fed chickens as a boy. When he returned to Atlanta, I asked him about the cats and he said, “I don’t think they recognized me.” His voice had changed. It was raspy. He sounded short. It wasn’t much of a conversation.
I had been filming John for years and I wanted so badly for him to see the finished film, the film I called SNCC. He might have watched ten minutes before he fell asleep. Then I called to say goodbye. He said “yes” a few times, he could hardly speak. I told him I was sure that I would see him again. That wasn’t exactly true, but I know John believed there was something after death. I had asked him how he felt about Julian Bond and Jim Forman and all the SNCC people who had died. “How does that make us feel, John?” I asked. “How does that make you feel?” and he said, “Do you remember Stanley Wise?” Sure, I said, we were with him in Cambridge. “Sometimes I feel I can pick up the phone and call him. But he is not there.” Now it’s John who is not there.
John Brown was held as a terrorist. When he was captured at Harper’s Ferry, all his abolitionist supporters fled or went into hiding. Thoreau alone saw John Brown as a saint. John Robert Lewis was an American saint. He took the blows for freedom upon his own body, and like Kafka’s Hunger Artist, became the physical embodiment of the movement. He believed so profoundly in the American ideals of equality that he repeatedly put himself in harm’s way to achieve these goals for everyone. As SNCC chairman he was the chosen symbol of the black uprising. SNCC was the point of the spear of the movement. Early in the Nashville sit-ins they locked the doors of a Woolworth, and when clouds appeared in the closed-up room John said, “They’re going to gas us.” At Rock Hill, South Carolina, a mob hit him in the head with a Coca-Cola crate. In Montgomery they beat him bloody as he tried to protect a white Freedom Rider whose teeth had been knocked out. His courage came from centuries of justice denied.
That last day I sat on his bed to film him, then rearranged his quilts as I got up to leave. Now he has left us. His soul will be with us forever.
Go to rest with the angels John, we will miss you.
Leading social justice advocacy groups came together in partnership with the College of Arts and Sciences to discuss how quality education should be upheld as a Constitutional right for all. The conversation was in response to a recent federal court ruling.
In a virtual town hall meeting hosted by The Algebra Project, the SNCC Legacy Project, Teaching for Change and the XQ Institute, members of these organizations called attention to the inequalities that persist in the U.S. education system. The meeting was held at 1 p.m. on Thursday, July 9 via Zoom.
Much of the meeting centered around a court ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which recognized the Constitutional right of foundational literacy under the Fourteenth Amendment. This decision was the result of a lawsuit brought by a group of Detroit public school students, who claimed they were deprived of the resources needed to achieve basic literacy. The ruling was passed on April 23.
The town hall meeting was led by B.J. Walker, a board member of The Algebra Project. SIUE’s College of Arts and Sciences co-sponsored the event, and CAS Dean Kevin Leonard shared his thoughts on its importance.
“I think it’s a really important issue. Education is a really important issue in our world today, in particular issues of educational quality and educational equality,” Leonard said.
Leonard said many people take for granted the quality education they receive, but students in some districts do not have the same access to resources.
“There has been a real struggle to make sure people are graduating from public high schools with confidence, with the ability to read, with the ability to do mathematical functions … A lot of people around the country take it for granted, but it’s not necessarily the case that in urban school districts students are really being provided with the kind of education that leaves them with the fundamental skills that they need to be citizens in the United States,” Leonard said.
Jamarria Hall, a recent graduate from Detroit Public Schools and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said this is a conversation that is long overdue and needs attention now.
“This is something that should have been talked about, we all know that,” Hall said. “A lot of us in 2020 don’t know we don’t have a Constitutional right to an education, which I was one of those people before the lawsuit … I’m glad we are talking about it in 2020 because if we don’t talk about it now it will be 2040.”
The majority of students in Detroit Public Schools, and many other urban school districts, are minorities. Hall said disparities in the quality of education contribute to other issues, such as systemic racism and inequality.
“We’re still enslaved, not just through the school system but in life, through our community, we see it all the time. The hardest thing and the hardest fight is to fight a system that’s been set up,” Hall said.
During the town hall, Mark Rosenbaum, one of the attorneys who represented the students in the lawsuit, said the poor conditions in the Detroit schools, including unqualified teachers and improper textbooks, were unacceptable.
“A basic education is a right, and that means no government can continue to deny students like Jamarria their opportunity to thrive and to better their circumstances,” Rosenbaum said.
Russlynn Ali, the founder and CEO of the XQ Institute, was another panelist at the meeting. Although Ali said the means exist to create educational equity, she questioned whether the will was there to initiate changes.
“This Sixth Circuit decision lays out a roadmap on what needs to be done to ensure equity access,” Ali said. “It is up to state legislators, it is up to the federal government to do what’s right. We need statutes and policies that codifies these decisions and ensures that we follow what the data say. We actually have the know-how, the research and science to tell us how to close the achievement and opportunity gap. The real question remains, do we have the civic and political will?”
To watch the meeting, titled “Town Hall on Quality Education as a Constitutional Right,” visit Teaching for Change’s YouTube channel. For more information about this issue, visit the Quality Education as a Constitutional Right website.
The killing of George Floyd took me back to my Mississippi childhood, where black men were lynched by vigilantes or murdered by the police with impunity. Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck was reminiscent of how the local sheriff and his deputies patrolled our all-black community — as though they had their knees on our necks.
Sixty years ago, I participated in the civil rights movement to bring about the same kind of changes being sought by Black Lives Matter activists today.
I am angry, because it seems like little has changed.
I was baptized in the Old South’s rigid system of racial segregation, where the do’s and don’ts of racial separation were enforced with heavy doses of violence.
Each time I hear on the news that a black boy or man has been killed by law enforcement officers or armed white men who take it upon themselves to police their communities, like the ones who killed Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Ga., I remember, with pain and anxiety, the racial murders of my youth.
I was almost 12 years old when 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered by two white men in Money, a small town in the Mississippi Delta, and his body thrown in the nearby Tallahatchie River. Emmett’s crime was allegedly making a pass at the wife of one of the men at a local grocery store. His killing brought absolute terror to my young life because I felt that any of us kids could be lynched. My youth and optimism caused me to believe that his murderers would be punished. It was a painful letdown when the jury deliberated for an hour and found them not guilty.
Three years ago, Carolyn Bryant, the woman whose accusation led to Emmett’s murder, admitted she lied. I was outraged because she waited 53 years before acknowledging that she caused a boy to endure the most violent murder I had ever heard of. Yet she continued to live her life without accountability, like so many other Southern white women who made similar accusations that led to the deaths of falsely accused black men.
I was reminded of Carolyn Bryant when Amy Cooper recently called the police in New York’s Central Park and said a black man who was birdwatching was threatening her after she argued with him when he asked her to put her dog on a leash as required by law.
I have a visceral reaction each time a white person calls the police on a black man, woman or child whom they accuse of threatening them by their mere presence. It angers me that black people must go through life making white people feel comfortable, when it is we who have been terrorized by institutional racism for centuries. Yet our fears are ignored or given short shrift.
Emmett Till’s death became the catalyst for my generation to join the civil rights movement, much like the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland galvanized young people to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
Like other Southern black college students of my generation, I joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) along with my sister Dorie Ladner. The organization had been founded in 1960 by John Lewis, now a U.S. congressman representing Georgia, and James Clyburn, now the House Majority Whip, from South Carolina. Other founders included activists Diane Nash and Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson, Julian Bond, who would later become head of the NAACP, and countless others whose sacrifices are legendary.
In 1961, when I was a student at Jackson State College, we boycotted classes and peacefully marched to the courthouse in Jackson, Miss., to support a group of students from Tougaloo College who had been arrested for holding a sit-in at a white public library. We were met with a roadblock, where police attacked us with tear gas and chased us with a dog. I was reminded of that experience recently when federal police used tear gas to disperse peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square in front of the White House.
Students led protests across the South, including sit-ins at lunch counters and freedom rides on interstate buses, leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination. A year later, our efforts helped secure the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
More than 55 years later, public schools remain largely segregated and black workers earn 73 to 74 cents on the dollar, 62 to 64 cents for black women, compared to what white workers make, and the financial gap between black and white people is as wide today as it was in 1968. The coronavirus pandemic has hit black workers, who are overrepresented in low-wage service jobs, harder than white workers. And it has had an even more frightening impact on African Americans: Although black people comprise 12.5 percent of the population, they account for 22.4 percent of covid-19 deaths.
And as a result of the 2013 Supreme Court ruling, black people are again fighting for the right to vote against new restrictive laws imposed by Republican officials around the country.
I am angry when I hear members of an armed militia at the Michigan State Capitol invoke the name of Rosa Parks as a justification for their protests against the statewide stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the coronavirus. And I am angry when I read the blowback on Twitter against Martin Luther King III, who quoted his father as saying that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” They told him that he did not understand the meaning of his own father’s words because in their view, Martin Luther King Jr. was nonviolent and always turned the other cheek. They conveniently ignored the fact that Dr. King spoke out often about the right to protest and to go to jail for what he called just causes. As King’s daughter Bernice King wrote on Twitter, “Don’t act like everyone loved my father. He was assassinated. Many who quote him now and evoke him to deter justice today would likely hate, and may already hate, the authentic King.”
When I see the young people protesting the killing of George Floyd across the country, I am angry that the racial terror we fought against 60 years ago is with us still. I am reminded of the murders of my civil rights mentors, Medgar Evers and Vernon Dahmer, and of the three civil rights workers — Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. I knew James and Michael from the Mississippi civil rights movement. Chaney was a black Mississippian and Schwerner and Goodman were from New York and were Jewish.
I applaud the diversity of the protesters against George Floyd’s killing, because for too long the burden of racism has been foisted on the shoulders of black people, with little responsibility assumed by whites. White people need to accept responsibility personally and collectively, and although their support is appreciated, they must redouble their efforts to enact laws and institutional changes.
My anger is earned and justified. A certain amount of righteous anger and indignation has been and continues to be the engine behind black protests and progress.
The SNCC Legacy Project is partnering with The Highlander Center to host a virtual panel discussion entitled, “The Freedom Struggle Then and Now.” As you know, the COVID-19 (coronavirus) has necessitated the postponement of the SNCC 60th Anniversary Convening. We are working to reschedule the Convening for June 2021. As part of the organizing for the rescheduled SNCC 60th Anniversary Convening, the SNCC Legacy Project will be partnering with organizations representing today’s activists to host a series of virtual meetings that will provide information about the ongoing struggle.
To register for the Thursday, April 16, 2020 Zoom virtual meeting from 7-8pm EDT, click here.