Some 100 years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the public outcry of the civil rights movement culminated in the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Another 22 years later, President Ronald Reagan’s signature made official a federal holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the way his historic speeches and non-violent protests won the hearts and minds of the American people. King convinced us that religious and personal freedom extends to more than those in the majority.
King’s story is told every year. My hope is to bring to light a lesser-known member of the civil rights movement who was equally courageous — John Lewis.
“The Beloved Community” in America
John Lewis has dedicated most of his life toward creating what he calls “The Beloved Community” in America. This has involved protecting human rights and securing civil liberties against an entrenched segment of Americans who objected to ending Jim Crow segregation across the South.
Lewis was born in 1940 in Troy, Alabama, and graduated from the American Baptist Theological Seminary at Fisk University. He was inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery bus boycott and the message of Rev. King.
When many cowered, John Lewis stood up. He was one of the first of the Freedom Riders to be beaten when he tried to enter a whites-only waiting room in South Carolina. As farfetched as that would sound in 2015, it was not the last time he was beaten, or even arrested.
He could have been angry and lashed out — nobody would have blamed him. However, he knew that a moral and ethical leader was needed to change the country, and he was willing to make the necessary sacrifices.
During the height of the movement, he was named chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and became a nationally recognized leader. By 1963, he rose to be one of the Big Six leaders of the civil rights movement. At 23, he organized the historic March on Washington where MLK dared people to dream. He was also a keynote speaker.
After 1964, Lewis became the director for the Voter Education Project, which registered nearly four million minority voters.
In 1981, Lewis was elected to the Atlanta City Council. Five years later, he was elected to Congress, where he currently serves as the U.S. Representative from Georgia’s 5th Congressional District. He has been re-elected 14 times and has dropped below 70 percent of the vote only one time. He has maintained his voice and is known by Republicans and Democrats in both chambers as the “conscience of Congress.”
What lessons can we learn?
I was born in 1963 at the height of the civil rights movement. Feelings were charged and states did not want to be told what to do.
By then, Congress and three administrations had made some incremental progress since the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. However, they had not solved the underlying issue of equality in America. That was a daunting task — much like we see in the current political environment over the plight of the undocumented.
Many struggles take time. They often result in years of tumult, a seemingly endless array of seminal moments and flashpoints. It’s easy to feel exasperated at the slow progress toward King’s dream that “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”
Often, one wonders what trajectory other issues based on race would have taken if the life of MLK had not been cut short.
Since the civil rights movement of the ’60s, racial tensions have not gone away, but they have changed. Certainly we have seen a different kind of racial politics come into view — particularly this past year.
In November, Oregon voters failed to approve a ballot measure to provide a driver’s card to the undocumented population. Not long after, the president signed executive orders regarding immigration policy, mostly out of sheer frustration over the glaring lack of leadership by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Some didn’t like the executive orders or the driver’s card. The fact is, we never should have been talking about either one. They were only needed because Congress has utterly failed to fix our broken immigration system.
Someday, my grandchildren will look back and wonder why immigration reform had to be so difficult and controversial — just as my daughters today wonder why the civil rights movement encountered such stubborn opposition.
This is our time
John Lewis had a choice. He could have been resentful. Or, he could have tried to win the hearts and minds of the people and use reason as an ethical compass. He chose correctly.
MLK Day is more than a day off of school for children; it is a day of remembrance and a call to service to the country. Its very existence shows that, just as King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
The fights over states’ rights and cultural changes may sometimes be bitter, but once they are won, the sour taste is ultimately forgotten. The progress remains.
Our country is not finished. This is our time to take the road less traveled. We can win hearts and minds on the issue of undocumented immigrants, and like John Lewis, we can act in a moral and ethical manner. We are on the right side of history.