Every day, some ridiculous or explosive or dangerous or miraculous thing happens with our teenagers. I wish I could sit them all down and tell them about John Lewis.
A great leader has died, more courageous than any president, always fighting for what is right, practicing nonviolence all the way. Born one of 10 children of share-cropping farmers in Alabama, his heroes were Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Bobby Kennedy.
Lewis was jailed more than 40 times for peacefully demonstrating. He put himself out there starting as a teenager, over and over. “Yes, let’s get in the way of that. I’ll be there.”
For the fight against segregation in the ’60s. For the right to attend schools with everyone, ending the long bus rides out to ramshackle schools for “coloreds.” For the sit-in at Woolworth’s whites-only lunch counter in Nashville.
For the right to register to vote in the Jim Crow South. Educated people were subjected to ridiculous “literacy” tests, such as guessing how many jelly beans were in a jar, and then ruled incompetent. Less than 10 percent of black people were registered in Alabama. And trying to actually vote was dangerous.
Facing mob and police brutality over and over, he never fought back. He peacefully protested. Never raised a fist or lighted a fire. He believed that not judging the haters was the best way. What strength of mind to resist violence with a peaceful presence!
I would explain what a Freedom Rider was, and the number of times buses were mobbed, fire-bombed, attacked by the KKK. I would explain how white people, including women, kicked, clawed, and beat black people who peacefully protested against segregation, which had already been outlawed but was still common practice in the South. Lewis missed his college graduation because he was in jail after the first Freedom Ride and attack in 1961.
On Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, Lewis helped King’s lieutenant Hosea Williams lead a march with hundreds of people from Selma, Ala., to the state capital after a young black man was shot to death by a state trooper during a voting rights demonstration. The plan was to kneel and pray if confronted by police. The march never made it to Montgomery. Lewis and dozens of others were beaten unconscious at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
King called on thousands to march again. On the third try, 25,000 people made it to Montgomery. The televised Bloody Sunday beatings led President Lyndon Johnson to introduce the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was passed in August.
Lewis served in Congress for 34 years, depended upon by his colleagues to embody the moral compass when they didn’t have the courage to speak themselves.
He continued to join nonviolent marches, for national health care, for LGBTQ rights, for ending cruel immigration “reform” practices. He was arrested and jailed at least four times in peaceful protests as a congressman. He staged a sit-in for stricter gun control on the House floor after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub.
His dream was the creation of the Beloved Community. We have all benefited from his courage and commitment. And yet the majority of Americans do not even know who he was, so mesmerized are we by popular culture and exhausted by daily political dramas.
His body lies in state this week in Washington, D.C. My job, self-assigned, is to tell our teenagers what this 80-year-old man faced and accomplished. Will I be able to get their attention?
Irene M. Paine, a native of Wellfleet, is the author of Eva and Henry: A Cape Cod Marriage. She lives in Yarmouth Port.