John R. Lewis was dedicated to racial equality in America through non-violent acts. It’s time to honor him by taking action like he would have.
By James E. Clyburn
John Lewis and I first met in October 1960 at the organizational meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. We were 20-year-old college students bound and determined to speed up our nation’s pursuit of “a more perfect Union.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had adopted Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence and it was clear from our name that we had bought into the concept. For most of us, however, non-violence was a tactic, but for John Robert Lewis, it became a way of life and he practiced it to its fullest.
My second interaction with John came when the Freedom Riders stopped in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and he was physically attacked and injured. One of my mentors and pony league baseball coach was James T. “Nooker” McCain, a field organizer for the Congress of Racial Equality. He went to Rock Hill, brought John to Sumter, South Carolina, and facilitated his return to Washington, D.C. This and several later gestures endeared Nooker to John as well.
Faithfulness to non-violent change
Although there were times when the movement left John, John never left the movement. When insurgents denounced non-violence and rejected his leadership of SNCC, he did not despair nor was he deterred. He became director of the Voter Education Project and that precipitated our third set of interactions. I was chairman of the Charleston Voter Education Project, and the foundation was laid for our final shared experience as members of the United States Congress for 27 years together.
John continued his quest for equality right up to the bitter end. Just last month, he visited the Black Lives Matter plaza in Washington D.C., as if to pass the torch. He and I had talked about the current iteration of the movement — its intensity, its diversity. We felt that a sustaining movement for “liberty and justice for all” had finally arrived.
We cautioned, however, that sloganeering and soundbites could precipitate headlines that destroy the headway being made by the BLM movement as they did with SNCC. I am hopeful that this generation of protesters will heed John’s admonition that “rioting, looting, and burning is not the way. Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Stand-up. Vote. Be constructive, not destructive.”
Take action in honor of John
I really appreciate the words of sympathy being expressed by so many. Words can be important, but, as the Good Book says, deeds are what really matters. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should honor John with not only his words, but with his deeds. The Senate should take up H.R. 4, and name it the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020.
When I told my father that I had decided against following him into the ministry, he responded that, “the world would rather see a sermon than hear one.” John was both a minister and a living example, who demonstrated what it means to follow the moral compass directed by one’s faith.
My favorite Old Testament scripture is Micah 6:8, “do justly, be merciful and walk humbly.” It must have been John’s as well.
Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., is the Democratic majority whip. Follow him on Twitter: @WhipClyburn