Well Done, John Lewis. Well Done

Charlayne Hunter-Gault on the contributions and legacy of the congressman and civil rights legend.

John Lewis (Mike Coppola/Getty Images)
John Lewis (Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

(Special to The Root) — Charlayne Hunter-Gault delivered the following remarks on April 4, 2013, at the Allen Prize Symposium at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta, where Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) received the Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Social Courage.

The first time I heard Barack Obama say that he stood on the shoulders of giants, it was in Selma, Ala., as he was campaigning in 2008. And then, as always, one of the faces that appeared in my mind’s eye was that of John Lewis. On that horrifying day in 1965, there was one of the biggest demonstrations in the history of the civil rights movement.

Selma was the home of the Ku Klux Klan, which helped preserve with fear and brutality and, yes, murder the whites-only privileges they enjoyed. Black people had no rights, no voice in the affairs of the town, except for a brief period during Reconstruction. The whites who ran things kept them confined to work in their cotton fields, in their kitchens and in their gardens.

To speak up about just about anything could mean losing one of those limiting jobs or, worse, to be hanged from a tree. As a result, they didn’t challenge their conditions, although they were not happy with them. As the author and attorney Charles W. Chesnutt once wrote: “The first struggle would be against black fear, not white resistance.”

And as my good friend Andrew Young, and fellow speaker today, also recalled, “Residents of Selma were like the dog who gets kicked all the time but just moves out of the way whenever someone comes along.”

But he also went on to say: “By 1965 the dog had been kicked too many times. Selma had been bruised and abused long enough.”

John Lewis was one of the reasons the people of Selma were able to confront their fear and rise up and demand their full rights as citizens.

Earlier, in 1963, John and his fellow members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the brash young civil rights organization known as the “shock troops” of the movement … took their first voter-registration campaign to Selma. Only 2 percent of blacks in the entire state of Alabama were registered, not least because of the ridiculous obstacles the white officials placed in their path.

In Mississippi, for example, black would-be voters were required to take literacy tests, recite from memory portions of the state constitution and interpret them, often for white registrars who themselves could not read or write. One SNCC worker, who tried to get blacks registered in Selma, was ambushed and beaten so badly that he was near death.

This horrible viciousness was not new to John Lewis. And so in 1961, when he organized the first Freedom Rides from Washington, D.C., he so well knew what perils possibly lay ahead that he and the others who joined them did an amazing thing for some so young. As John was later to recall, “We were prepared to die. Some of us signed letters and wills. We didn’t know if we would return.”

And sure enough, the group encountered their first violence in Rock Hill, S.C., when a group of young white toughs at the bus station’s pinball machines noticed John as he stepped off the bus. As I wrote with tears in my eyes as I prepared my latest book on the civil rights movement:

… when John stepped off the Greyhound bus and attempted to enter through the white entrance, one of the whites directed him to the colored entrance. Lewis responded: “I have a right to go in here on grounds of the Supreme Court decision in the Boynton case.” One of the white youths spat out a profanity, and when Lewis ignored it and stared in through the door, a young white man punched him in the mouth, thus giving Lewis the dubious distinction of taking the first blow to a Freedom Rider.