A civil rights giant
“turning the other cheek.”
Civil rights leader John Robert Lewis, who led protests in the segregated south of the early 1960s, is one of the best modern-day examples of the philosophy of nonviolence championed by Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Lewis’s bloody beating by state troopers in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965, is one many acts of violence he and other “Freedom Riders” suffered. His skull was fractured and he bore the scars on his head for the rest of his life.
Lewis, whose distinguished life included many years as the U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district, died July 17 in Atlanta, Ga. He was 80 years old.
Despite the physical and verbal abuse he and other advocates for social justice suffered during the early 1960s, Lewis counseled demonstrators not to fight back, be polite and even love their tormentors.
“Remember the teachings of Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King,” he instructed. “Love and nonviolence is the way.”
This kind of discipline is no easy task. Defending oneself against verbal and physical abuse is a natural reaction but in the tense environment of the segregated south during the 1960s, the patience and love Lewis espoused may have prevented the violence from spiraling further out of control.
“The movement created what I like to call a nonviolent revolution,” said Lewis on March 28, 2013, as part of an interview with Krista Tippet about the civil rights movement he helped lead in the ’60s. “It was love at its best. It’s one of the highest forms of love. That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that, I’m gonna still love you.”
His peaceful, civil-rights journey began after reading a comic book published in 1957 titled “Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Story.” The comic book inspired him to attend nonviolence workshops, study Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Jr., and civil disobedience.
Lewis, who graduated from the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tenn., was ordained as a Baptist minister. He said the civil rights movement he helped lead was “able to get people to respond because of the quality of our demand and our sense of moral authority.”
In today’s world of social unrest and divisiveness, Lewis’s message of love and nonviolence is worth heeding.