After Obama’s book, I wasn’t sure I could handle another 500 page memoir, but John Lewis (1940-2020) is one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever read about. Voting rights, civil rights, human rights–he dedicated his life to ending legalized segregation and to pursuing equality and justice for all. Jailed over a hundred times, beaten, tear-gassed, and stomped on–all while non-violently protesting–he never wavered in his faith that we can be better. Inspired by the philosophy of Gandhi the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the training of Jim Lawson, he saw non-violence as a way of life. He says, “when faced with a hateful, aggressive, even despicable person, imagine that person–actually visualize him or her as an infant, as a baby. If you can see this full-grown attacker who faces you as the pure, innocent child that he or she once was–that we all once were–it is not hard to find compassion in your heart” (77). I have no idea how he could carry this love, this compassion with him every day, especially when he’s bent down praying in protest and a white cop swings at his head with a baseball bat, calling him n–ger. How? How could he remain calm? How could he have the capacity to forgive? In their training, they are told that not only can the not hit back, they cannot even have the desire to hit back. This non-violent feeling has to be so ingrained in them that they are not even suppressing it: it’s simply not there.
Through his years with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which he joined in early college, and through his years working with the SCLC (not always an easy relationship) and CORE as well as his many other positions and eventually as a US Congressman, he never deviated from this path of believing in what he calls Beloved Community. He is a marvel of a man. I wish I had read his memoir when he was still alive.
And his message to students (which will go on my wall next to an MLK Jr quote): “Do some good. Do something out of a sense of community, something that is aimed beyond yourself. And be ashamed if you do not” (65).