“His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope’’ by Jon Meacham. Random House. 354 pages. $30.
BY DR. GLENN ALTSCHULER
SPECIAL TO THE FLORIDA COURIER
As a little boy in Troy, Alabama, John Lewis had already developed a hatred of racial inequality. The contrast between a sparkling silver “whites only” water fountain and the rusty spigot reserved for “colored” people at the five and 10-cent store burned into his consciousness.
He was appalled when he discovered that his sharecropper parents were paid $1.40 for every four hundred pounds of cotton they picked – over four days. “I carried my load, I did my duties,” Lewis recalled, “but I also spoke my mind.”
An icon of the civil rights movement, who was arrested 40 times and repeatedly put his life on the line, Lewis, according to Jon Meacham, was a saint, guided by a Christian vision of a kingdom governed by the Sermon on the Mount – and a commitment to non-violence as the way to get there.
In “His Truth Is Marching On,’’ Meacham, a professor at Vanderbilt University and the author of biographies of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and George H. W. Bush, provides an informative, intimate, and inspirational biography of Lewis in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Meacham makes a compelling case that Lewis, who succumbed to cancer this summer, was essential to the establishment of a multi-racial America.
Meeting with King
Meacham highlights Lewis’ first meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1957. After warning the 17-year old that his plan to integrate Troy State University was likely to result in retaliation against him and his parents, King said, “If you really want to do it, we will see you through.”
In the end, Meacham points out, Willie Mae and Eddie Lewis refused to go along. “I was heartbroken,” John recalled, “but I didn’t argue.”
It turned out that the Lord – and the Spirit of History – had other plans for him. A student at American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Lewis joined lunch counter sit-ins, was beaten, and arrested. When non-violent demonstrations became national news, the city’s mayor desegregated facilities.
Postponing his senior year at ABT, Lewis became a Freedom Rider, taking Greyhound and Trailways buses to Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi.
Assaulted by Klan-led mobs at almost every stop, Lewis thought he might never get out of the notorious Parchman Farm, Mississippi’s state penitentiary. And, we learn, when he was savagely attacked on Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, Lewis saw death and thought, “it’s all right, I am doing what I am supposed to do.”
Meacham also highlights the conflict Lewis felt when he was asked to tone down his remarks at the March on Washington in 1963. And even more poignantly, his falling out with SNCC (and Stokely Carmichael) over Black Power.
Deeply disappointed that he had been “de-elected” as chair of SNCC, Lewis, Meacham writes, remained committed to “bearing non-violent witness in search of an inter-racial America,” but understood why Blacks “were frustrated at the pace of change.”
The last word
“His Truth Is Marching On’’ is not a full-scale biography. Meacham spends very little time on Lewis’ personal life and devotes less than a page to his 34 years in the U.S. Congress, deeming them “not as overtly remarkable as his years in the movement.”
That said, he gives Lewis the last word. Horrified by the behavior of President Trump, Lewis proclaimed (as he voted for an impeachment inquiry), “Sometimes I am afraid to go to sleep for fear that I will wake up and our democracy will be gone and never return.”
In an afterword, Lewis lays out a vision that Meacham deems prophetic and powerfully relevant.
“So much of what makes America great is hanging in the balance,” Lewis maintains, “our openness to immigrants, our treatment of the poor, our protection of a free and fair right to vote, our care of the climate, our expansion of economic opportunity, our attitude toward our political foes. Fear is abroad in the land and we must gather the forces of hope and march once more.”
Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He wrote this review for the Florida Courier.