The Current

John Lewis would welcome Black Lives Matter's fight for a better world, says Carol Anderson

Professor Carol Anderson remembers the life and legacy of U.S. congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, who died Friday, aged 80.

Anderson sees echoes between today's protests and civil rights work of Lewis, who died Friday

U.S. Congressman John Lewis 'embodied the best of us,' says Professor Carol Anderson. (Lawrence Jackson/The Associated Press)

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The late civil rights icon John Lewis supported recent Black Lives Matter protests, but was disappointed the struggle of his younger years was still ongoing, according to the scholar Professor Carol Anderson. 

"John Lewis welcomed that fight. He welcomed the energy of Black Lives Matter," said Anderson, Charles Howard Candler professor of African American Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga.

"He'd welcome this kind of vision of all of us fighting for a just world, fighting for a better world, a more humane world," she told The Current's guest host Robyn Bresnahan.

The U.S. congressman was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year, and died Friday. He was 80 years old.

WATCH | A look at John Lewis's legacy:

John Lewis, congressman and civil rights icon, dead at 80. A look at his legacy

2 years ago
Duration 7:17
U.S. Rep. John Lewis was the last survivor of the Big Six civil rights activists who organized the 1963 March on Washington. 7:17

In 1963, Lewis was one of the Big Six civil rights activists who organized the March on Washington. The 23-year-old spoke shortly before Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. 

Two years later, he led 600 peaceful protesters across Selma, Alabama's Edmund Pettus Bridge, in a march for voting rights. The day became known as Bloody Sunday after state troopers beat the protesters back with night sticks and tear gas, fracturing Lewis's skull.

Those events led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

"Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and others inspired me to get in trouble and I've been getting in trouble ever since," Lewis told The Current's former host Anna Maria Tremonti in a 2017 interview

"What I call good trouble. Necessary trouble." 

Anderson said she sees "vibrant" resonance between protests today and the injustices Lewis fought decades ago. She spoke to Bresnahan about the legacy of the civil rights icon. Here is part of their conversation.

From left: Big Six civil rights leaders John Lewis, Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer and Roy Wilkins are seen at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City in July 1963. (Harry Harris/The Associated Press)

When did you first meet him?

I met him actually at Emory when he was our commencement speaker, and I was there to be his faculty host. That's how I met John Lewis.

Then there was another moment when we were on the same plane and had the same connection, and so we had lunch together, with a woman and her young daughter. And you saw again John Lewis's compassion and his brilliance, as he listened to this child speak of her dreams.

He was nicknamed Preacher because when he was young, he was responsible for taking care of the family chickens. He was one of 10 children in his family, and apparently he would be preaching to the poultry, reading them the Bible. What do you know, Carol, about the roots of his activism as he grew up? Where did they start? 

I believe that they started where a lot of black folks in the movement started: in the church.

And you see how the language of non-violence, the language of community, the language of 'we are all in this together.' That never left him. 

Lewis, foreground, is hit by a state trooper during a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala., in March 1965. (The Associated Press)

He once said, you never become bitter. You never become hostile. You never demean your opposition. Did he manage to stick by that creed? 

Absolutely. Absolutely. He embodied the best of us. He embodied the vision, the commitment, the integrity. And so on that scene in Bloody Sunday, when he and Hosea Williams are leading non-violent protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and they are facing Sheriff Jim Clark on horseback with bullwhips, and the Alabama police. And you see the tear gas, you see the horses trampling over people, the bullwhips cracking.

And in the midst of all of that, you see, again, this sense of "we are simply fighting for our rights as citizens."

I wonder how John Lewis's view of the modern-day protests, the ones that are going on right now, about Black Lives Matter, how did he see those protests?

It was like coming home again, because what they are fighting for resonates. Fighting for equality, fighting for justice, fighting for the kind of fairness and fighting across racial lines. Saying that, again, we are all in this for a better America, for a better society.

U.S. President Barack Obama presents a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Lewis during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in February 2011. (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

Did he feel disappointed, Carol, that that fight is still ongoing? 

Yes. When you think about what Bloody Sunday led to was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and that was a game changer in American society. Because it put the weight of the federal government behind the voting rights of African-Americans, to stop these states from doing all kinds of horrible, horrible things to block black people from voting. 

When the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013 because they said racism was no longer a factor in American society, the states once again reared up.

And that's how we ended up in this horrible moment now, with a regime put in power based on voter suppression, with a renewed Voting Rights Act just sitting on a Senate desk, not being renewed as states continue to try to figure out how to stop African-Americans and Latinos and Native Americans from voting.

And so John Lewis welcomed that fight. He welcomed the energy of Black Lives Matter. He'd welcome this kind of vision of all of us fighting for a just world, fighting for a better world, a more humane world. 


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin. Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story described Carol Anderson and John Lewis as friends. She clarified that they were not personal friends; rather, he was her Congressman.
    Jul 20, 2020 8:54 PM ET

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