John Lewis has always been one of my heroes, and trust me, as a Chomskyite I have damned few of them. But this man is an extraordinary exception. Of all the two-legged vile, venal, corrupt creatures in Congress, he stands out as a beacon in dark times, and always has.
He is a man who is deeply serious. He has gravitas in the Classic Roman sense. And he has earned every bit of it. He was born the child of sharecroppers in Pike County Alabama. He was a student first at the American Baptist Theological Seminary then graduated from Fisk University in Nashville.
In the early 1960s he became one of the youngest leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, and was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1960 he was one of the 13 original Freedom Riders. In 1963 he became one of the leading members of the SNCC and helped to organize the March on Washington. He coordinated efforts for the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, and played a prominent role in the Selma to Montgomery Marches, and on March 7, 1965 led a group of marchers over the Edmund Pettus Bridge when they were confronted by police. Trained in non-violence, they knelt to pray and were tear-gassed by the police.
Lewis’ skull was fractured that day by a night stick, but he escaped to Brown Chapel Church, the nearby headquarters, and appealed to LBJ to intervene in the violent situation in the South before he was taken to the hospital. He still has the visible scars from that day on his head.
He had already been beaten up by the police once before, in 1961 when he tried to enter a whites-only waiting room in Rock Hill South Carolina; he was assaulted by two men who broke his ribs. And he has numerous stories of the violence that he and the Freedom Riders endured in the course of their campaign for racial justice in the South. In Anniston Alabama their bus was fire bombed by the KKK. In Birmingham they were beaten up mercilessly. In Montgomery at the Greyhound bus station he was beaten unconscious with a wooden crate. The Kennedy administration called for the Freedom Riders to have a cooling off period to try and stop the violence; during that time Lewis (not the police or those responsible for beating him up) spent 40 days in the Mississippi State Prison.
From there, Lewis worked his way up through community organizing into city, state, and national government. Anyone who has followed this man knows that he, if anyone, is the conscience of our country. He is the definition of greatness, the very opposite of the craven, lawless, deeply unethical politics that his fellow creatures in Congress, practice (I am looking right at you, Jason Chaffetz, you craven piece of collaborating crap).
Selfless, articulate, a man of gravitas, of profound dignitas – perhaps because he has a belief in the deep dignity of each one of us. He is what a politician should be, and should make us, frankly, all deeply ashamed of where we now find ourselves.
Growing up he and his family listened on the radio to Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks on the Montgomery bus boycott. And now, over fifty years later, he has made his intentions clear that he will boycott the inauguration to take place in seven days; he views the president elect as having all the legitimacy of our racial policy in the South all those many decades ago. We should all lament this ironic twist in which the circle of racial division has now been brought round by no one less than the president elect, his band of racists, and his racist supporters (and yes, anyone who stands with a racist, is a racist).