"His Truth is Marching On" Reviewed by Bill Schwab
Drawing on interviews conducted over many decades, Jon Meacham has written a heartfelt portrait of the iconic civil rights movement leader and longtime U.S. Congressman John Lewis. Meacham delivers an intimate biography of his friend’s early life which reveals the spirit of Lewis as well as his insider’s view of the Civil Rights movement.
Lewis, the great-grandson of a slave, was stirred at an early age by the “Social Gospel” beliefs of Walter Rauschenbusch, the philosophy of nonviolence of The Reverend James M. Lawson, the mob lynching of Emmett Till, the daring witness of Rosa Parks and the ministry of The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.
These admired exemplars of nonviolence led Lewis to embrace the Biblical imperative to “love thy neighbor” and to adopt the philosophy of nonviolence. At the heart of Lewis' commitment to leading the U.S. closer to the ideals posted in its founding documents was his faith in God and humanity and in the power of hope.
In this homage, Meacham asserts that John Lewis is “as important to the founding of a modern and multiethnic twentieth- and twenty-first century America as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and Samuel Adams were to the initial creation of the Republic itself in the eighteenth century.”
The book begins with a brief overview of Lewis' childhood in Troy, Alabama. He was born in 1940, one of 10 children whose parents owned a farm in Jim Crow country. Lewis loved his church and contemplated becoming a minister. At age four he was spotted preaching to a congregation of backyard chickens. When an animal died, “Lewis would conduct a full funeral, complete with readings from scripture and a eulogy.” When he attended the Highlander Folk School, an institution that prepared people for social justice work, Lewis embarked on his first sit-in when he was 19. He and other students sat on the stools of a segregated lunch counter in Nashville, Tennessee. This courageous act of civil disobedience created a nation-wide stir because it was the first of many nonviolent sit-ins. In 1961, at age 21, Lewis took part in the Freedom Rides to desegregate buses and bus terminals. His nonviolent activism met with brutal violence on many occasions.
Meacham writes a hard-to-read description of Lewis' 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. On what came to be called “Bloody Sunday,” Lewis and other marchers were ruthlessly beaten and tear-gassed by a white mob and state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge (named after a Ku Klux Klan leader.)
“Trapped between asphalt and his uniformed attackers, inhaling tear gas and reeling from the billy club blow to his head, [he] felt everything dimming.” However, Meacham continues, “For Lewis there was no sense of panic, no gasping, no thrashing, no fear. He was at peace.” While recuperating from the blows, Lewis summarized: “We marched for what Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. called the ‘Beloved Community,’ he taught us that we have to use not only voices but there comes a time when you have to use your feet. And that march, the march for love, that march doesn't end.”
This chronicle of Lewis’ activism essentially ends in 1968 when President Kennedy is assassinated. The remaining pages of the book summarize Lewis' career as a congressman, his National Book Award win in 2016 and his reaction to President Trump's election.
When Lewis knew his death was imminent, he submitted a poignant epilogue to Meacham. In those last words he writes, “When I was growing up there was a song that people would sing in the church: ‘I'm so glad trouble don't last always, Oh my Lord, Oh my Lord.’ You have to believe that. You have to believe it. It's all going to work out.” John Lewis’ quest for his “beloved community” never wavered.
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, month, or a year. It is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
“His Truth is Marching On” is not a full-scale biography but Meacham has written a laudable tribute and commentary on an inspiring American. The book includes striking photographs depicting how violent the 1950s and 60s were. An informative appendix at the end of the narrative surveys the changing attitudes of the public before, during and after the Civil Rights Movement. In addition, there are source notes, an extensive bibliography and a thorough index.