There may be no two Americans more different—in background, temperament, and career—than Donald Trump and John Lewis.
Their viral paths crossed last week after Lewis—a civil rights icon and a congressman from Atlanta—said in an NBC interview on Friday that “I don’t see the president-elect as a legitimate president.” The next day, Trump responded over Twitter, saying Lewis was “All talk, talk, talk - no action or results. Sad.” Trump’s comments sparked controversy in part because the exchange occurred on Martin Luther King Day weekend.
Trump might have been shocked by the uproar stirred by his tantrum, including demands by people across the ideological and partisan spectrum that he apologize to Lewis. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Trump had no idea he was attacking one of the most admired figures in American history—one whose entire life embodies action over talk on behalf of social justice. Trump surely has little knowledge of the movement Lewis helped lead. Perhaps Trump’s only encounter with civil rights activists came when they sued him and his father for discriminating against African American would-be tenants in their New York City apartment buildings during the 1970s.
If Trump wanted to learn about Lewis, he should read the congressman’s 1999 autobiography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. Unfortunately, the book is now hard to get. Hours after Trump’s Twitter tirade, Amazon was temporarily out of stock. Its sales spiked by nearly 106,020 percent, moving the book from the 15,918th spot to 2nd on Amazon’s bestsellers list. But if he acts quickly, Trump might still be able to get a copy of Lewis’s graphic novel trilogy, March, about the civil rights movement. Thanks to Trump’s attack on Lewis, it is now Amazon’s best-selling book. And given Trump’s distaste for reading, a comic book version of the civil rights movement seems appropriate.
In November, Lewis received the National Book Award for March. “I remember in 1956 when I was 16 years old, with some of my brothers and sisters and cousins, going down to the public library and trying to get library cards,” he said in his acceptance speech. “We were told that libraries were for ‘whites only’ and not for ‘coloreds.’ To come here and receive this award, this honor, is too much.”
Lewis’s remark reflects that vast contrast between his and Trump’s life.
Trump was born to wealth. His father Fred built a vast real-estate empire by building middle-class housing subsidized by the federal government. To teach Donald to take responsibility, his father insisted that he have a paper route, but in bad weather Fred allowed him to make deliveries via chauffeured limo.
Lewis was born into a large family of sharecroppers in rural Alabama. At 15, he heard Martin Luther King’s speeches and sermons on the family radio during the Montgomery bus boycott and decided to become a minister. Suffering from a speech impediment, he practiced preaching to chickens in his parents’ barnyard and preached at local Baptist churches. At 17, after becoming the first member of his family to graduate from high school, he attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, which allowed students to work in lieu of tuition. He worked as a janitor and simultaneously attended the all-black Fisk University, graduating with degrees from the seminary and the university.
Trump avoided the draft through questionable deferments and joined his father's real-estate business after graduating from college in 1968. Although Trump constantly boasts about being a self-made man, he relied on his father’s backing to expand the family’s holdings. His father was his safety net. In a 2007 deposition, Donald Trump admitted that he had borrowed at least $9 million from his future inheritance amid financial difficulties.
Trump’s life has centered on the unbridled and ruthless pursuit of fame, fortune, and power. Unlike some rich Americans, he’s never exhibited any sense of public service or noblesse oblige. He is narcissistic, impulsive, and insecure.
Trump represents two overlapping traditions in American history. One is the con artist, flim-flam man, and huckster. Herman Melville described the type in his 1857 novel, The Confidence Man: His Masquerade, about a Mississippi river boat on which a con man, in different disguises, hoodwinks passengers by selling stock in failing companies, raising money for fake charities, selling phony “medicine,” or simply persuading them to give him money to show that they have “confidence” in their fellow man. The 19th-century circus impresario P.T. Barnum, the fictional Harold Hill in 1957’s The Music Man, and Jackie Gleason’s pool shark in The Hustler also bear resemblances to Trump. They share a willingness (even eagerness) to lie, manipulate, and exploit the public to gain riches and power. Trump also exemplifies a peculiar tradition of upper-class snobbery. Like the sons of the Gilded Age robber barons, he inherited great wealth but has convinced himself that he made it on his own, justifying his disdain for people he calls “losers,” and his infatuation with people who are wealthy and famous. Trump’s rhetoric reflects a modern-day version of social Darwinism.
Lewis exemplifies another American tradition—one that includes the struggles of abolitionists, the farmers’ revolt, the labor movement, the women’s rights movement, the civil rights crusade, environmentalism, and LGBT rights movements. It is the tradition of dissent that holds America up to its highest ideals as an inclusive and humane society.
Lewis has a place on a through-line that begins with Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was friends and political allies with John Addams, a leader of the Illinois Republican Party and a conductor on the anti-slavery Underground Railroad during the Civil War. Addams’s love for Lincoln and commitment to justice had a deep impact on his daughter Jane. In 1889, Jane Addams started Hull House, the first settlement house, in Chicago, to help poor people and new immigrants, and became a pioneer crusader for child labor, women’s rights, civil rights, and civil liberties, and winner of the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize. She befriended and inspired a young seminary student named Myles Horton, who talked with her about starting a “Southern Mountain School” to help poor people. In 1932, he used Hull House as a model for the Highlander Folk School, an interracial training center for activists in rural Tennessee, his native state. In the 1950s and 1960s, many civil rights activists participated in Highlander’s workshops, including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Lewis.
Lewis has faced physical violence by racists and vigilantes with courage and dignity. His encounters with the law and the courts have been over matters of conscience—facing arrest and jail to challenge injustice. He is beloved by many friends and colleagues, humble and forgiving, strengthened by his religious faith.
As a college student, Lewis was drawn to James Lawson, a divinity student at nearby Vanderbilt University, who was conducting workshops on nonviolent social action through the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Lawson prepared his students intellectually, psychologically, and spiritually, assigning the works of Mohandas Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau, and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. The students debated whether they could learn to forgive, even love, white segregationists who might beat them. They wondered if they had the self-discipline not to strike back, especially if they were called “nigger” or other epithets while being hit.
In 1958, Lewis attended a weekend retreat at Horton’s Highlander Folk School, where veteran activists helped him visualize what could happen if thousands of poor working people—folks like Lewis’s parents—were galvanized into direct action. “I left Highlander on fire,” Lewis recalled.
When he returned to Nashville, he joined other students to ask local stores to voluntarily desegregate. When they refused, the students began preparing for civil disobedience. In February 1960, Lewis participated in one of the first lunch counter sit-ins. Day after day, Lewis and other students—black and white—sat silently at Woolworth’s and other lunch counters, where they were harassed, spat upon, beaten, arrested, and held in jail, but the students insisted that they continue. Lewis played a key leadership role. Eventually Nashville’s mayor and business leaders agreed to desegregate the downtown stores.
Lewis’s physical and spiritual courage would be tested many times. Each time, he revealed a remarkable, calm discipline, galvanizing others to follow his lead. In 1961, the 21-year-old Lewis participated in Freedom Rides to protest the segregation of interstate bus terminals. Lewis was on the first Freedom Ride, which left Washington, D.C., on May 4 for New Orleans. When the riders reached Rock Hill, South Carolina, and got off the bus, Lewis tried to enter a whites-only waiting room. Two white men attacked him, injuring his face and kicking him in the ribs.
Only two weeks later, Lewis was one of 22 Freedom Riders—18 blacks, four whites—on another bus from Nashville to Montgomery. As they reached the Montgomery city limits, the state highway patrol cars that were escorting them turned away, but no Montgomery police appeared to replace them. When the bus arrived at the Greyhound terminal, several reporters approached Lewis to interview him. They were quickly overwhelmed by a mob of angry whites carrying baseball bats, bricks, chains, wooden boards, tire irons, and pipes, screaming, “Git them niggers.”
As Lewis wrote in his memoir: “I felt a thud against my head. I could feel my knees collapse and then nothing. Everything turned white for an instant, then black. I was unconscious on that asphalt. I learned later that someone had swung a wooden Coca-Cola crate against my skull. There was a lot I didn’t learn about until later.”
When he regained consciousness, he was bleeding badly from the back of his head and his coat, shirt, and tie were covered with blood.
Two days later, the battered Lewis was back on another Freedom Ride bus, heading to Jackson, Mississippi. When they arrived at the terminal, a police officer pointed them toward the “colored” bathroom, but Lewis and the others headed toward the “white” men’s room and were promptly arrested. Twenty-seven Freedom Riders were jailed. Lewis and others were later moved to the notorious Parchman Penitentiary state prison, where they were held for more than three weeks.
By the time he was elected chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1963, Lewis had been arrested 24 times. SNCC was the most militant of the major civil rights groups, led by black college students but including white students as well. As its chair, Lewis was invited to help plan the March on Washington and be one of the major speakers, alongside King and others.
After the march, Lewis worked with SNCC to register voters, participating in the Mississippi Freedom Summer campaign in 1964. The following year, he led 600 protesters on the first march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery. Police attacked the marchers. Lewis was beaten so severely that his skull was fractured. Before he could be taken to the hospital, he appeared before the television cameras calling on President Lyndon Johnson to intervene in Alabama. That day, March 7, 1965, came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” Reflecting on that event, Lewis said: “I was hit in the head by a State Trooper. I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die.”
The voter registration drives, as well as public outrage against the violence directed at nonviolent protesters, helped secure passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
For the next seven years, Lewis directed the Voter Education Project, which registered and educated about four million black voters. President Jimmy Carter then appointed Lewis director of ACTION, the federal agency that oversaw domestic volunteer programs. In 1981, Lewis was elected to the Atlanta City Council. Five years later, he was elected to Congress from an Atlanta district, and he has been re-elected every two years since.
Since his election, Lewis has continued to advocate for progressive causes both through legislation and civil disobedience. He was an early opponent of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In 2002, he sponsored the Peace Tax Fund bill, which would permit conscientious objection to taxation that funds the military. He’s been arrested at least five times since his election to Congress. In 1988, he was one of 64 people arrested at the South African embassy in Washington, D.C., for protesting apartheid. In 2009, he joined several other representatives who were arrested outside the embassy of Sudan to draw attention to the genocide in Darfur. He has been a strong ally of students involved in the immigrant rights movement and a key supporter of the DREAM Act. At a 2011 rally, Lewis said, “We all live in the same house. If any one of us is illegal, then we all are illegal. There is no illegal human being.” In 2013, he was arrested (for the 45th time) on the National Mall at a protest rally demanding that Congress support a comprehensive immigration bill.
Last June, Lewis, launched the sit-in on the House floor to protest his Republican colleagues’ failure to allow debate on a gun control bill. His action eventually drew 170 other House Democrats and infuriated Republicans. After the sit-in ended, he told supporters on the Capitol steps, “The fight is not over. We’re going to continue to push, to pull, to stand up, and if necessary, to sit down. So don’t give up, don’t give in. Keep the faith, and keep your eyes on the prize.”
In 1989, Lewis returned to Montgomery to help dedicate a civil rights memorial. An elderly white man came up to him and said, “I remember you from the Freedom Rides.” Lewis took a moment to recall the man’s face. Then he recognized Floyd Mann, who had been Alabama’s safety commissioner in the early 1960s. A committed segregationist, tough on law and order, Mann had been assured by Montgomery’s police chief that no violence would occur. Seeing the white mob attack the Freedom Riders as they got off the bus, Mann realized he had been double-crossed. He charged into the bus station, fired his gun into the air and yelled, “Ther’'ll be no killing here today.” A white attacker raised his bat for a final blow. Mann put his gun to the man’s head. “One more swing,” he said, “and you're dead.” When they met again, Lewis whispered to Floyd Mann, “You saved my life.” The two men hugged, and Lewis began to cry. As they parted, Mann said, “I’m right proud of your career.”
All Americans—even Donald Trump—should be proud of John Lewis’s life and legacy.
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