‘His Truth is Marching On’ affirms the promise of peaceful activism over violence
John Lewis came close to dying on March 7, 1965 (“Bloody Sunday”), when he helped lead the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. His forces met Alabama policemen in riot gear, who proceeded to viciously beat Lewis and the other nonviolent demonstrators who were attempting to focus the nation on voting rights for African-Americans. If he’d died that day, Lewis would’ve left behind an impressive legacy for one so young. But he survived, and carried on, until July 2020.
His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and The Power of Hope, by Jon Meacham, helps to put Lewis’ youthful activism in the context of his times, and to demonstrate that, far from an assured victory of right over wrong, the struggle that Lewis and countless others in the movement embarked on had very real costs to all involved. After all, Lewis’ mentor Martin Luther King, Jr., died violently from an assassin’s bullet, as did Malcolm X and Robert F. Kennedy. Lewis, through all this violence, stuck to the tenets of nonviolent protest, becoming something of an outlier in the more radicalized portion of the Sixties, but clinging to his principles nonetheless. Because he rooted those principles, as Meacham points out, in a deep and abiding Christian faith.
Meacham isn’t out to write a comprehensive biography of Lewis, but a chronicle of the most dramatic time in Lewis’ life (and in American history, arguably). And it’s a time that continues to this present day; one of Lewis’ last acts before his death was to visit a Black Lives Matter/George Floyd memorial display in Washington, D.C.
Lewis’ life reads like the American dream narrative, in many ways: son of a sharecropper, he became the first in his family to go to college, and while he never became ordained as the preacher he’d always imagined himself to be, he did end up serving honorably with King and helping to coordinate RFK’s outreach to the Black community during the 1968 presidential race. He then became a long-tenured Congressman, serving in the House of Representatives and receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But it’s Lewis as a young man, looking at the injustices of the world and, as he would exhort others over the years, “speaking up and saying something,” that Meacham profiles here.
His Christian faith informed his every activity in the Civil Rights Movement, from leading one of the first sit-ins in the country in Nashville to participating in (and being beaten during) one of the Freedom Rides in the Deep South in 1961. As chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis worked closely with Dr. King in helping to organize the March on Washington, where he also delivered a fiery speech despite last-minute edits to appease the John F. Kennedy administration.
Moved by his readings of the Bible, as well as Gandhi, Thoreau, and others, Lewis embraced the notion of a “Social Gospel” in which preachers led not just from the pulpit on issues of civil rights, but in the streets. In this capacity, Lewis received his most serious attack, at the march in Selma in 1965. But through it all, his core beliefs in a “Beloved Community” where all were equal in the eyes of God sustained him through countless trials and tribulations. Like the saints of early Christendom, Lewis suffered for his faith.
When John Lewis passed, we rightly remembered him as one of the shining lights of the Civil Rights Movement, a warrior from past times who bled for the cause at an early age. But, as Lewis himself reminded us in his last days, the struggle is not over. Many may no longer feel that Lewis’ unconditional embrace of nonviolence is workable in today’s environment, or that the right to vote (which he almost died for) really makes a difference in today’s toxic political culture. Indeed, as the book shows, Lewis opposed the emerging “Black Power” platform of figures like Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panther Party.
But as Jon Meacham reminds us, John Lewis was a warrior on a sacred mission, whose weapons were not the swords, guns, or bombs of a violent army but the voices, feet, and blood of a peaceful movement bent on meeting hatred with love. To John Lewis, love trumped hate, and he went to his grave believing in the Christian credo that he had been raised in. In His Truth Is Marching On we see how that faith and love of humanity made him a hero not just in his youth, but for all time.
(Random House August 25, 2020)