They talk about living your values, of walking the walk. John Lewis did it, figuratively and literally.
This morning I heard a Republican on the radio lauding Lewis for a life spent in service. The speaker noted, of course, Lewis’s leadership in civil rights, and specifically pointed out his dedication to non-violent protest and civil discourse. Given the moment, it was almost too easy to read between the lines, to catch a whiff of the subtext cast by Black Lives Matter. What they didn’t say, what they never really say, is that non-violent protest, that being civil, is not the same as staying quiet, and it is not the same as not acting.
A few years ago, when I read Raymond Arsenault’s Freedom Riders, it became extremely clear to me how direct action operated during the civil rights movement. Speaking out against injustice—riding the bus knowing that it would lead to confrontation, of marching in the face of threats of police brutality—exposed the apparatus of suppression.
Direct action assumed, for the most part, that violence would occur, but that it would be driven by the police or the white community; the system’s immune responding the only way it knows how. True, the protesters were largely non-violent; that doesn’t mean the system’s response was peaceful. Look at Lewis, in the front of the photograph, being beaten by a state trooper while on a voting march in 1965.
I don’t want to write about The Letter, but seeing the tributes from my friends who were lucky enough to meet or know John Lewis, or just to be able to tell him what his work meant to them, it reminded me of the same. Somebody can call for civility, for discourse, for more speech, and they can honestly mean it. But being civil doesn’t mean doing nothing when you see somebody being hurt, and sometimes more speech requires protest; it requires direct action.
We all see our lives and experiences through a lens. It’s easy to see yourself and your decisions on the right side of history, like our Republican friend did. But it’s always worth asking yourself if you’re the protester or the system.
I know which side Lewis was on, and I know that it’s 59 years since he rode the bus. Fifty nine years, and we’re still marching.
Rest in power.