The Common Good
January-February 1999

Pitting Forgiveness Against hate

by Sherrod Brown | January-February 1999

John Lewis and the civil rights movement.

Few in the U.S. Congress have the moral stature of Rep. John Lewis. He earned it the hard way. Lewis was beaten, perhaps more often than any other human being in the civil-rights movement. He was jailed more than 40 times. He was heckled, spat upon, and threatened more times than he can count. Yet through it all, Lewis and the movement prevailed—at the lunch counters in Nashville in 1960, on the burned-out buses of the Freedom Rides in 1961, at the 1965 march in Selma.

Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement

is the pre-eminent book documenting the civil rights movement, written by one of its most important leaders. It traces Lewis' life from his boyhood in Alabama through most of the major battles of the civil rights movement and into his congressional career. It reveals a man who, remarkably, is without bitterness and holds great hope for the future of humankind.

It was March 1965 when the "children of Selma" changed history. Lewis was 25; the others were as young as 14. One 14-year-old who participated in the march had been jailed nine times for sit-ins and protests. On March 7, 1965, known as Bloody Sunday, Lewis and Hosea Williams led about 500 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and were savagely beaten by Sheriff Jim Clark and the Alabama State Police. That march and its aftermath outraged the nation and led directly to the passage later that summer of the Voting Rights Act.

The son of a sharecropper in tiny Troy, Alabama, Lewis saw only two white people—a traveling salesman and the mailman—before he was 6. His first exposure to any kind of integration came at age 12 when he visited family members in Buffalo. One of 10 children, Lewis arrived in Nashville as an 18-year-old with big ideas—the first Lewis to go to college. As a student at American Baptist Theological Seminary, it did not take him long to realize that he wanted more than an education.

In Nashville, he met James Lawson, a 30-year-old Ohioan who had studied at Oberlin College, been jailed as a conscientious objector for his opposition to the Korean War, and who had studied the work of Gandhi in India. Lewis learned from Lawson and from Gandhi's teachings the principles of civil disobedience and what Lewis later called the Beloved Community, where racial and ethnic differences are celebrated and people can live together in harmony.

LAST YEAR, TO MARK the 33rd anniversary of the march on Selma, Lewis escorted 10 members of Congress, including this writer, on a pilgrimage to Alabama. Mayor Joe Smitherman, whose first months as mayor coincided with the famous march, greeted us at a Selma restaurant. Elected in 1964, Mayor Smitherman was then considered a moderate, but was nonetheless a segregationist whose stated goal was to "preserve the Southern way of life." Today he presides over a majority-black city, with an African-American police chief and a black majority on the city council. In one of the most remarkable illustrations of the human capacity for change, Smitherman said at lunch, "Thirty-three years ago, when John Lewis came to Selma, I thought he was an outside agitator and a troublemaker, maybe a Communist. Today I think he is the most courageous man I ever metà.We were wrong. All Americans should have the right to vote."

Lewis knows more about forgiveness than any human being I have ever met. Forgiveness can change people's minds and their hearts. George Wallace genuinely changed, in large part because Lewis and other soldiers in the civil rights movement practiced forgiveness and nonviolence. Lewis said that when confronting the forces of hate, it is essential to see the perpetrator as a baby or an infant. "You can't take an eye for an eye; if you do, we will all be blind."

Five years ago, as a freshman member of Congress, I sat next to Lewis at a White House bill-signing ceremony for the Motor Voter bill, which has since greatly increased voter participation. Before President Clinton signed the bill, he played the tape of Lyndon Johnson speaking at the signing of the 1964 Voting Rights Act. What, I wondered at the time, must be going through Lewis' mind? After reading Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, I understood a little better.

SHERROD BROWN is a member of the U.S. Congress from Lorain, Ohio. He served with Lewis in Congress for six years and ran Lewis' campaign this fall for Democratic Whip.

Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. John Lewis. Simon and Shuster, 1998.

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