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“Don’t Simply Yoke Him to Dr. King”: Eddie Glaude on How Radical Student Activism Shaped John Lewis

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Memorials for John Lewis, the civil rights icon and 17-term congressmember, are highlighting the bravery he and others showed in the face of police violence as they fought for the right to vote. We highlight the radical early years of Lewis, when he was chairperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. His political upbringing as a youth and student organizer and “the movement that he came out of” can’t be ignored, says Princeton professor Eddie Glaude. It’s important that people “don’t simply yoke him to Dr. King, [and] understand him as a product of this student activism.” Glaude is chair of Princeton University’s Department of African American Studies.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. Fifty-five years ago, Alabama state troopers brutally beat John Lewis and hundreds of others who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Bloody Sunday, to demand the right to vote. On Sunday, the body of John Lewis crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the final time. Rose petals were scattered along the path as two black horses pulled a caisson, the casket of the late civil rights icon and 17-term Georgia congressman, who died on July 17th at the age of 80. The carriage driver wore a white face mask to guard against the spread of coronavirus, and a black top hat, which he took off and placed over his heart when he reached the top of the bridge and paused for two minutes over the Alabama River.

The day before, Congressmember Lewis was remembered in services in his hometown of Troy, Alabama. One service at Troy University was titled “The Boy from Troy,” the nickname Dr. Martin Luther King gave Lewis at their first meeting in 1958 in Montgomery. John Lewis was denied admission to the school in 1957 because he was Black. Decades later, he was awarded an honorary degree.

After Sunday’s ceremony in Selma, John Lewis’s body was taken to the Alabama Capitol to lie in state. He will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., before a private funeral Thursday, after he lies in state in the Georgia state Capitol. The funeral will take place at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta once led by King.

In 2012, Congressmember John Lewis came to the Democracy Now! studio and talked about what happened on that day in March, that day known as Bloody Sunday.

REP. JOHN LEWIS: I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. I had a concussion at the bridge. My legs went out from under me. I felt like I was going to die. I thought I saw Death. All these many years later, I don’t recall how I made it back across that bridge to the church. But after I got back to the church, the church was full to capacity, more than 2,000 people on the outside trying to get in to protest what had happened on the bridge. And someone asked me to say something to the audience. And I stood up and said something like: “I don’t understand it, how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam but cannot send troops to Selma, Alabama, to protect people whose only desire is to register to vote.” The next thing I knew, I had been admitted to the local hospital in Selma.

AMY GOODMAN: That was a late civil rights icon John Lewis, speaking at Democracy Now! To see the whole hour, go to democracynow.org.

The bravery John Lewis and others showed in the face of the police violence that day played a key role in passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act just two months later. He would go on to be arrested some 40 times during the civil rights movement, and many times after that, making what he called “good trouble.”

For more on his legacy, on the movement today of Black Lives Matter, we go to professor Eddie Glaude, the chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University, author of a new book — well, his old, called Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul, and his new book, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.

Professor Glaude, welcome back to Democracy Now!

EDDIE GLAUDE: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the week of John Lewis, as he will lay in state in three different capitols — Alabama, Georgia and in Washington, D.C. — and then be buried on Thursday. He was not only a 17-term congressmember, he also was the head of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He came out of movements. He marched in the streets. He was beaten and arrested numerous times. Talk about the significance of this.

EDDIE GLAUDE: You know, whenever I think of John Lewis, I think about his fundamental faith, his fundamental commitment that human beings could be otherwise. He writes that faith is being so sure of what the spirit has whispered in one’s heart that your belief in it is unshakeable, and its eventuality is unshakeable. John Lewis demonstrated a courage that was rooted in his faith.

But I think it’s important, Amy, that when we tell the story of John Lewis, we understand that he comes out of the student movement. And we’re going to connect this to the earlier segment with what’s going on with Black Lives Matter. He comes out of the student movement, those young folk who sat in, who radicalized, in some significant way, the civil rights movement, those students between 15, 16, 17 and 22 years old, some 23 years old. And so, in Nashville — right? — as he was going to school, trained under Jim Lawson, he was a part of that wildfire of sit-ins that shook the nation, and then organized itself at Shaw University as Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, with SNCC and Marion Barry and Muriel Tillinghast and Stokely Carmichael and Chuck McDew and Courtland Cox, these are — Diane Nash. These are these young students who became the shock troops of the movement, who went into the bowels of the South, sometimes only two, three, four deep, and risked everything. In literature, we might call them the holy fools, who risked their lives to change the nation.

And I think it’s really important that when we tell the story of John Lewis, that we don’t simply yoke him to Dr. King, which is important; we understand him as a product of this student activism. And remember, at the March on Washington, Amy, they had Archbishop O’Boyle try to censor his speech. In some ways, they were successful, him and others, you know. And what they said, that famous quote that people have been using over and over again about patience, in the original version of that speech, John Lewis said, “Patience is a nasty and dirty word.” So, there is more to be said about his legacy and about the movement that he came out of.

AMY GOODMAN: And when you say he was not only tied to Dr. King, on Democracy Now! he talked about meeting with Malcolm in Africa, in Nairobi, and spending several days with him. In fact, actually, Malcolm X was in Selma. And also, when he marched, when he had his head bashed in, Dr. King wasn’t next to him then. He went later for the later march, but he wasn’t there then. That was led by John Lewis.

EDDIE GLAUDE: Right, and it’s important to understand. You know, we tell the story of Selma as this high point — and it was; you were right to note that it laid the foundation for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — but Selma was in a moment of extraordinary conflict. John Lewis marched in that march without the sanction of SNCC. He could not be a representative of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, because SNCC disagreed with the strategy of SCLC in that moment. You’ve already mentioned Malcolm was present. SNCC organizers were challenging the basic strategy. Remember, they end up in Lowndes County, Alabama, organizing what would become in some ways the first iteration of the Black Panther Party. A year later, Stokely Carmichael will declare that he’s no longer going to say “freedom now,” he’s going to say “Black power.”

John Lewis was chair of SNCC from 1963 to 1966. He, in effect — right? — was in some ways a leader of the radicalization of this student organization. And it broke his heart, Amy, that he lost to Stokely Carmichael as chairperson, that he had to walk away. But it had something to do with his commitment to the philosophy of nonviolence.

And let me say this really quickly. We often tell the story of Black power and the civil rights movement as if they’re wholly separate. When we look at SNCC and we look at the life of John Lewis, we see that many of the people who cried “Black power” were some of the same young people who risked their lives nonviolently in the bowels of the South. They confronted the terror of the country, the betrayal of the country, and their anger bubbled over. They sought power as an answer to the moral question. John Lewis’s faith never shook, though. It never changed. And that’s why he, to this day, believes in nonviolence. And that’s why he’s going to his grave as, in some ways, a martyr of that particular philosophy.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then talk about a man that you also wrote about, at that time also a contemporary, actually, of John Lewis, and that’s James Baldwin, because in 1963, two years before Bloody Sunday, when John Lewis was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, it wasn’t a few weeks before the bombing of the Birmingham church, to show the stakes in the killing of these little girls. We’re going to talk about the civil rights movement right up through this election. We’re talking to professor Eddie Glaude. We’ll continue with him in 30 seconds.

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