Jon Meacham’s His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis And The Power Of Hope
Judith Mayotte, Ph.D.
Jon Meacham, distinguished author and Canon Historian Elect of the Washington National Cathedral, in his latest book, His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis And The Power Of Hope, notes Lewis’ prescient words on National Public Radio in 2016, shortly after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. “The past week has made me feel like I’m living my life all over again – that we have to fight some of the same fights. To see some of the bigotry, the hate, I think there are forces that want to take us back” (p. 238). Today, as we witness how legislatures in forty-three states have put forth 250 bills or passed legislation to restrict voting rights, Meacham’s reflective book is a must read.
John Robert Lewis was born into a farming family, one of ten children, on February 21, 1940 in the small, off-the-beaten-track community of Troy, Alabama. Meacham guides us through Lewis’ childhood where light and darkness intertwined. Young Robert, or Bob as he was then known, grew up in a strictly segregated South where his knowledge of Black enslavement came not from history books but from stories his great-grandfather told him of his own days as a slave. Daily the young Lewis encountered and grew increasingly repulsed by the strictures and brutality of segregation. Beyond the confines of Troy, through reading the local newspaper and listening to the radio, Lewis learned of Emmett Till, Rosa Parks and the bus boycott, and the Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education decision. At the same time, he heard God’s word from the Bible his mother gave to him at age four. Until he could read, she faithfully read passages from scripture to him. He loved going to church where he learned of a radical love in his segregated world. The child, eager to become a preacher, preached to the chickens he attended. Loving to see things grow and blossom, young Robert patiently watered his mother’s garden.
It was on the radio in 1956 that he first heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak words that drew him closer to his calling to be a part of building the Beloved Community thorough nonviolent means. “’You have a dual citizenry,’ King said. ‘You live both in time and eternity, both in heaven and earth….The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it’” (pp. 33-34). Young Robert was ready to become John and commit his life to faith in action – the church in the public square.
In 1957, at age seventeen, John Lewis left Troy for the American Baptist Theological Seminary (ABT) in Nashville. Meacham relates how the 1958 workshops of the Reverend James Lawson best prepared John Lewis for the years ahead. These workshops wove together “faith, philosophy and justice,” (p. 57) and melded love as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount and Gandhi’s passive resistance. Along with a community of like-minded people, John Lewis devoted himself unstintingly heart, mind and soul to realizing fully the God-given humanity of every human person. In a spirit of nonviolence and in pursuit of the Beloved Community, from leading the SNCC, to the sit-ins, to the Freedom Rides, to the Freedom Summer, to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the Bloody Sunday March from Selma to Montgomery, John Lewis was ready to lay down his life if required. “It was religion that got us on the buses for the Freedom Rides. We were in Selma that day because of our faith,” Lewis notes (p. 242). In a few short years, he suffered cruel incarcerations 40 times – and even five more times as a Congressman. But as he and his colleagues worked with Dr. King, Jr. their efforts bore fruit in the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the legislation of the Great Society and a gradual movement toward desegregation. John Lewis encouraged all in his orbit to keep their feet moving and to make “good trouble” for the greater good.
Jon Meacham intentionally covers John Lewis’ life only to the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, on whose campaign Lewis was working. In a reflective final chapter, Meacham bookends Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final Sunday sermon given from the Canterbury Pulpit at the Washington National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, just days before his assassination and John Lewis’ March 30, 2008 sermon from that same pulpit. Notably, Lewis referred to the same text of Revelation King had referenced exactly forty years earlier. Significantly, the passage characterizes the mission of both men. “And I, John, saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem coming down from God out of heaven….And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, ‘Behold the tabernacle of God is with men’” (pp. 233-34). Both believed in the presence of God’s Kingdom in the here and now. Neither man wavered in his belief that adhering to discipline and nonviolence and acting in a peaceful manner, with love and a sure belief in the dignity of each human person, one could transform our nation into the Beloved Community (p. 234). Both men were realists and saw in the ebb and flow of history that bigotry, hate and white supremacy would become resurgent as it has today. But, Meacham depicts Lewis from childhood until his death as one with an open hand, not a clenched fist, as one who sees and acts rather than turning away, as one who, as The Reverend Doyt admonishes, “untethers the colt and stitches together something that has come apart.”