REPORTED BY: CHARLES P. PIERCE/ESQUIRE
Abraham Lincoln’s backside.
I could never meet John Lewis without thinking of Abraham Lincoln’s backside, because, when asked about the great March on Washington in 1963, John Lewis always mentioned Abraham Lincoln’s backside. He was 23 years old then, the chairman of the new Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. He was two years distant from a stay in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman State Prison, the great, haunted place beneath a hundred blues songs, for the crime of using a white restroom. He was two years away from nearly being murdered by Alabama state troopers for the crime of wanting to vote. He was 23 and he was angry. The rhetoric John Lewis brought to Washington offered not peace, but a sword.
The draft of his speech began with a furious accounting of all the shortcomings of the Civil Rights Act then pending in Congress at the other end of the National Mall.
In good conscience, we cannot support wholeheartedly the administration’s civil rights bill, for it is too little and too late. There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality.
It called out the president who was watching on television a few blocks away.
The revolution is a serious one. Mr. Kennedy is trying to take the revolution out of the streets and put it into the courts. Listen, Mr. Kennedy. Listen, Mr. Congressman. Listen, fellow citizens. The black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom, and we must say to the politicians that there won’t be a “cooling-off” period.
And then, as a windup, John Lewis proposed to say:
We won’t stop now. All of the forces of Eastland, Bamett, Wallace and Thurmond won’t stop this revolution. The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground — nonviolently. We shall fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy. We will make the action of the past few months look petty. And I say to you, WAKE UP AMERICA!
This closing passage in particular unnerved the leaders of the March. So Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Philip Randolph, and the other organizers took Lewis aside to try and convince him to tone the speech down. They looked for a place to work, and they found a small room inside the Lincoln Memorial. “Right under Mr. Lincoln’s backside,” Lewis always said, and then he would laugh. Nobody had a better right to laugh than he did. He wasn’t supposed to still be alive. He was supposed to have died on the shoulder of Highway 80 in Selma, Alabama, beaten to death by the forces of Alabama law. America tried to kill John Lewis several times, but he wouldn’t let it. He loved the promise of America too much to let its sinful reality end his life. He made it across the bridge and lived. He made it to Congress and fought. And, on Friday evening, John Lewis died, in his own time and in the proper way. He was 80 years old.
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subject civil rights activists starting on right unidentified man, second man joachim prinz, another unidentified man, reverand eugene carson blake, reverand martin luther king, and floyd mckissitick, matthew ahman, and john lewis rest unidentified march on washington for jobs and freedom august 28, 1963photographer robert w kelleytime inc ownedmerlin 1202320
Lewis, far left, wrote a fiery speech for the March on Washington.
Robert W. KelleyGetty Images
He was the bravest man I ever met. Heroes in war, most of them, know that the country will embrace them when they come home. They have that to sustain them in the worst circumstances. They already know they have a country worth fighting for. When John Lewis was riding buses, and using forbidden washrooms, and walking across the bridge, he didn’t have that on which to rely. In that violent, freighted time, he was a man without a country. His courage came from a different place. It came not from being a man without a country, but from being a man demanding a country, and he wanted this one. It was the same fire that burned in the Founders, in the 54th Massachusetts on the beach before Battery Wagner, in the Tuskegee Airmen over Europe, and in the 183rd Engineers when they walked, horrified, into Buchenwald to liberate the survivors. It was the same fire that illuminated the Civil Rights Movement when he was young, and the new one that rose in the years before his death. It is the most American of desires to demand this country for your own, and to demand it fulfill the promises it made to the world. John Lewis had the most American soul I ever saw.
Providence being the great tragedian that it is, he died at a time when citizens are being rounded up on the street by anonymous elements of law-enforcement and hustled into unmarked vans. He died at a time when a desperate and failed president* is threatening to bring this kind of Bull Connor policing to every city in the country. He died at a time when the Voting Rights Act lies in ruins, and when Florida has found a clever way to bring back a poll tax. He died at a time of bad trouble, when the country is desperately in need of the “good trouble” he always recommended to his fellow citizens. He boycotted the inauguration of this president, a misbegotten shell of a man, because he saw all the old, howling ghosts who were lining up behind him, waiting for another turn at perverting the country John Lewis demanded with his own blood. He saw it all coming, right up to what’s happening at this very moment, from the peak in the middle of the bridge from which he first saw the lines of troopers, slapping the nightsticks into their palms. He got as far as his mighty American soul would carry him. It’s up to us to get ourselves the rest of the way.