Representative John Lewis, who died at the age of 80 this past Friday, was a preacher before he was anything else for which he will be remembered. Yes, he risked his life to desegregate Nashville’s lunch counters. He demonstrated remarkable courage to challenge Jim Crow in the Freedom Rides and spilled his own blood for voting rights on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Lewis served for three decades as the conscience of the Congress and fought against voter suppression in his own home state until he breathed his last breath. But before all of that, Lewis was a boy in Troy, Ala., who went to school with a Bible tucked under his arm and came home to preach to the chickens. As a fellow preacher, I can only understand his life’s work in light of Scripture.
Jesus said to the false teachers and hypocrites of his own day, “You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.”
As this nation mourns the loss of one of her most faithful sons, we should beware of those in power who issue statements praising the memory of John Lewis while they continue to stand in the way of the genuine democracy he risked his own life to press toward over and again. Jesus was right: In decorating the grave of John Lewis with flowery words, Republicans who refuse to restore the Voting Rights Act testify against themselves that they are the descendants of Bull Conner and Jim Clark, George Wallace, and Strom Thurmond. I have watched as Vice President Pence, Senate leader McConnell, and the governor of Mississippi offered great words, but none of them repented of opposing the agenda Lewis fought for all his life: living wages, health care, voting rights, and uplifting poor people. In fact, for over seven years McConnell has refused to restore the Voting Rights Act that John Lewis was beaten bloody for in Selma. Attempting to honor his life while standing against the justice and beloved community he stood for is as offensive as the Confederate monuments. Indeed, even Democrats who honor Lewis with their lips while compromising on the fundamental issues he was willing to die for make a mockery of his life.
John Lewis never wanted platitudes or pats on the back. He wanted love, justice, and public policy that reflected that love. If anyone in Congress really wants to honor the memory of John Lewis, they should put together an omnibus bill that brings together his legislative priorities for the past several years: the expansion of voter protections, living wages, universal health care, immigrant justice, and commonsense gun reform. These are the concrete steps toward a more perfect union that Lewis championed, even as he constantly reminded us of the sacrifice it had taken to overcome Jim Crow in the movement that gave rise to a Second Reconstruction in this nation. For politicians who opposed his work to honor Lewis now is a greater insult than those honestly hurled at him by the segregationists of Alabama and Tennessee in his youth.
To see Lewis as a prophet in the biblical sense is to acknowledge how his life reveals not only the hypocrisy of politicians but also the limitations of today’s progressive movements. When John Lewis decided to believe in the possibility of beloved community, local and state leaders in his home state were explicitly committed to a racial caste system. When he challenged that system, it jailed him, beat him, murdered his friends, and left him for dead. In the face of this brutality, he and those he committed to struggle with got up and intensified their efforts. They knew that whatever else happened, they could not let resistance deter them. They were determined, in the face of every brutal refusal, to intensify their efforts for genuine democracy.
Lewis was not a lone actor but a prophet who found his purpose in the Movement. There were people making a stand in Selma before him, just as we must be extensions of his life after him. If we are to honor Lewis now, we must remember his faith in revolutionary change even when friends within the Movement opposed him. When he spoke at the March on Washington in 1963, Lewis originally intended to say more than other leaders were ready to hear. It was not the first time. When elders had advised him and his colleagues not to continue the Freedom Rides in 1961, Lewis had insisted they could not turn back in the face of violence. Even within the movement, Lewis was a prophet, always pushing us to not let our horizon of possibility be eclipsed by the harsh realism of a broken world.
He never supported legislation simply because his party’s president or leadership proposed it. Lewis understood that nonviolent truth demands we always love our enemies and challenge our friends. Even as he was pushing for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he insisted that it could and must do more. “We must have legislation that will protect the Mississippi sharecropper who is put off of his farm because he dares to register to vote. We need a bill that will provide for the homeless and starving people of this nation,” he insisted with moral clarity. “We need a bill that will ensure the equality of a maid who earns five dollars a week in a home of a family whose total income is $100,000 a year.” What he demanded then is still needed now.
“All of us must get in the revolution,” Lewis wrote in his original draft of the March on Washington speech.
Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and every hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution is complete.… We won’t stop now. All of the forces of Eastland, Barnett, 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.
A prophet has crossed over from this broken world to the other side of life’s river, but his vision of a New Jerusalem right here and now is needed now more than ever. If we would honor him, let us commit ourselves to the radical revolution of values he saw the need for in 1963. Let us love this nation enough to insist that it must be born again. Let us organize and mobilize ourselves in this election year to transform our imagination of what is possible. If our current representatives in statehouses and in the Congress cannot pass a John Lewis omnibus bill, then let us pursue a nonviolent movement with the fire of love, truth, and justice burning in our hearts until we purge this land of the racism and injustice that have lasted far too long.