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John Lewis: an unflinching commitment to justice

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The instant the news flashed that Congressman John Lewis had died, the expected and much-deserved avalanche of tributes poured in. Trump’s tribute was in that avalanche. Lewis was praised as a civil rights icon, courageous, unremitting and a historic example of how a life devoted to civil rights can result in monumental changes in how America deals with race and racism.

Lewis was, of course, all of that. But he was much more, and that much more culminated not in the speech that he gave at the 1963 March on Washington that rocket-launched his name to national awareness, but rather in the speech he didn’t give.

Lewis was invited to speak because he was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC was doing the hardest, dirtiest, most dangerous work in backwater Klan-ridden Southern towns. SNCC organizers were the ones who pushed the envelope on voting rights. They provided much of the grunt work for MLK and the other established civil rights organizations in those same backwater towns.

But in the months before the march, SNCC had begun to sharply pivot toward radicalism. They were beginning to loudly declaim not just voting rights denial and racist sheriffs and registrars, but capitalism. They embraced liberation movements in Africa and Asia and  denounced the troop escalation in Vietnam. This was way too much for the moderate mainstream civil rights organizations. They began to quietly inch away from SNCC’s organizing tactics, methods and politics, and in time they would vehemently denounce the organization.

Lewis was caught in the middle. He was never all-in for SNCC’s sharp shift to anti-capitalist radicalism and liberation movements. However, some of this talk did appeal to Lewis. That set the stage for the speech he planned to give at the march. There was much public and behind-the-scenes wrangling, and threats from some civil rights leaders and moderate churchmen to boycott the march. The Kennedy administration virtually demanded that Lewis scrap the speech.

Lewis wobbled. He agreed to make cuts. The speech he gave was hardly moderate, timid or milk sop. It punched the right buttons about militant protest and the endgame of the civil rights movement to obliterate segregation. However, what was butchered out was the visionary tone in the speech.

He made clear that police abuse and violence was a major concern of SNCC and the single biggest threat to Black rights and lives. He made clear that he and SNCC would not back the Kennedy civil rights bill if it did not include stiff penalties and enforcement for police violence against Blacks. This was a no-no and created panic among the moderates. However, Lewis and SNCC, by making the bold call for an attack by the federal government on police violence, understood that without strong federal civil rights laws and enforcement of those laws against police violence, Black lives would always be in mortal danger. Local prosecutors and officials would not crack down on that violence. Lewis’ compromise was that SNCC would back the bill but with “great reservations.” This was the great reservation.

The fast-evolving international liberation movements were very much on SNCC organizers’ minds. Lewis openly called for a revolution aimed at breaking down the violence, poverty and discrimination that dumped poor Blacks at the bottom of the political and economic barrel. He did not shirk from naming “the Black masses” as the driving force of that revolution.

Mainstream civil rights organizations bluntly told Lewis he could not use those incendiary words. Lewis upped the ante by talking of burning down Jim Crow to the ground, though quickly adding “nonviolently.” It didn’t help. This smacked way too much of the left-wing radicalism that civil rights leaders feared would taint the civil rights movement as communist, radical and dangerous. The Kennedys would quickly cut and run from that.

The civil rights organizations certainly read the White House correctly. Kennedy, Hoover and the FBI, always on the lookout for any scintilla of communist involvement in the civil rights movement, would have had a field day with Lewis’ words. However, those words captured the mood of the Black masses for the kind of radical change that would do more than stop at the passage of civil rights laws, but demanded a frontal assault on poverty, violence and the gaping economic disparities that shackled the Black poor. Lewis on that score got it right. He was way head of the game, as time has amply proved.

This is the John Lewis that I will always remember.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.