Love, Not Guns, the Lesson of Selma for John Lewis
Just days after the chairman of Gun Appreciation Day tried to misappropriate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., the always execrable Rush Limbaugh pointed both barrels at the civil rights movement. Just in time for the weekend jointly marking King's birthday and President Obama's second inauguration, Limbaugh asked:
"If a lot of African-Americans back in the '60s had guns and the legal right to use them for self-defense, you think they would have needed Selma? If John Lewis, who says he was beat upside the head, if John Lewis had had a gun, would he have been beat upside the head on the bridge?"
Now, Congressman Lewis didn't "say" he was "beat upside the head" on March 7, 1965; any American can watch the video of the vicious attack by Alabama state troopers. Regardless, Lewis responded to Limbaugh's obscenity in exactly the dignified way all Americans should by now have to come to expect from him:
"Our goal in the Civil Rights Movement was not to injure or destroy but to build a sense of community, to reconcile people to the true oneness of all humanity. African Americans in the '60s could have chosen to arm themselves, but we made a conscious decision not to. We were convinced that peace could not be achieved through violence. Violence begets violence, and we believed the only way to achieve peaceful ends was through peaceful means. We took a stand against an unjust system, and we decided to use this faith as our shield and the power of compassion as our defense."
To put it another way, for John Lewis the answer to the atrocities of the segregationists was love, not guns. But we didn't need Friday's statement from Congressman Lewis to remind us of that eternal lesson of the civil rights struggle. As he showed four years ago, Lewis is its living embodiment.
On May 9, 1961, Freedom Rider John Lewis was viciously beaten in a whites-only waiting room at the Rock Hill bus station. In February 2009--48 years after Lewis sustained a fractured skull in the assault--his attacker Elwin Wilson came forward and apologized to Georgia Congressman Lewis. As ABC News reported:
"I'm so sorry about what happened back then," Wilson said breathlessly.
"It's OK. I forgive you," Lewis responded before a long-awaited hug.
For Lewis, who in the intervening years became a U.S. representative from Georgia, the apology was an unexpected symbol of the change in time and hearts.
"I never thought this would happen," he told "GMA." "It says something about the power of love, of grace, the power of the people being able to say, 'I'm sorry,' and move on. And I deeply appreciate it. It's very meaningful for me."
As Lewis explained in a joint appearance with Wilson on CNN:
"He said he wanted to apologize, that he was sorry, and I said, 'I forgive you.' And I don't have any bitterness or hatred, because it was in keeping with what we believed it, that we should have that we should have the capacity and the ability to forgive, that love is much stronger than hate. And it was very moving and touching for me for him to come to Washington and say, 'I'm sorry for what I did.'"
Later that year, Wilson and Lewis, the brutalizer and the brutalized, were honored with the Common Ground award at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. "It is never too late to make things right," Lewis said that night about the man he now calls "my friend."
When it comes to gun violence, Rush Limbaugh and his ilk have no authority to speak for anyone, let alone John Lewis. Lewis is that rarest of American heroes, one who sacrificed and suffered and bled so all Americans might be more free. When he reminds his Republican colleagues on the floor of House of Representatives and his fellow Democrats at the 2012 party convention about Jim Crow and voter suppression, John Lewis isn't reciting ancient history, but offering a page from his own life.
Last March, PBS viewers were reminded of that tragic past last year in the most heart-breaking fashion. In an episode of "Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.," Lewis learned an almost unbearable irony about his efforts--including the Selma march-- to enable and protect African-Americans' right to vote. An emotional Lewis discovered (around the 47:00 minute mark below) that his great-great-grandfather's was briefly able to vote in Alabama in the late 1860's before the iron fist of Jim Crow came crashing down.
"Knowing that a member of my family registered and voted in Alabama a hundred years before I did, before my mother and my father, my grandparents...it's just incredible. This is too much."
As we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King, the nation's first African-American President Barack Obama will once again take the oath of office in Washington, DC. Meanwhile, the debt of gratitude we owe John Lewis--for helping to expand the circle of liberty and enable what Lincoln called a "new birth of freedom"--can never be fully repaid. But his triumphs must be protected, his message of love over violence revered. As the new President Obama put it to Lewis following his first swearing-in four years ago:
"Because of you, John."