Remembering civil rights legend John Lewis: Lessons from Selma

The death of civil rights legend John Lewis, whose funeral is Thursday in Atlanta, sparked this conversation between Sun-Times columnists Mary Mitchell and Lynn Sweet.

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Clinton, Obama Commemorate Historic Selma March

During the Democratic primary campaign, on March 4, 2007, in Selma, Alabama, rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton joined civil rights giant John Lewis, who died July 17, and others to head to the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” Voting Rights march.

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The funeral for civil rights icon John Lewis will be Thursday in Atlanta. Lewis, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia, died July 17. His passing threw a spotlight on that Bloody Sunday in 1965 when he and other voting rights protesters on a march from Selma to Montgomery were beaten at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

On March 4, 2007, Mary Mitchell and Lynn Sweet were in Selma to cover Democrat primary rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as they courted African American support at the 42nd anniversary of that 1965 march. John Lewis was there, of course, and his death sparked this conversation between Mary and Lynn.

What struck us most about the march:

Mary: Of all the marches that civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis led across the Edmund Pettus Bridge after the infamous “Bloody Sunday,” in 1965, the crossing in March 2007 foreshadowed what a huge role he would play in getting Barack Obama elected the country’s first Black president. Leading up to that march, Lewis was pressured on all sides to tell the world whom he was endorsing in the showdown between Hillary Clinton and Obama for the presidential Democratic nomination. Lewis didn’t say a word. He left us scrambling to figure whether the nod would go to the frontline Clintons or the upstart Obamas. On that day, Obama would praise Lewis during a keynote address at the historic Brown Chapel AME Church, calling him one of the “great heroes of American history.” “He is somebody who captures the essence of decency and courage, somebody who I have admired all my life and were not for him I am not sure I would be here today,” Obama said.

Lynn: Clinton and Obama were actively wooing John Lewis’ endorsement, and everyone was trying to read the tea leaves that day. What I remember vividly was that frontline assembled for the march across the bridge – a visual sign of unity for the civil rights struggle among the rivals. Obama was on one side, Hillary and Bill Clinton on the other with civil rights legends in-between. Lewis was at Clinton’s side, holding her hand. He would go on to endorse her, later to defect to Obama. This was my first trip to Alabama. It was one thing to read about Selma; another to walk the streets and see the infamous bridge. I learned a lot.

What does it mean to stand on the shoulders of a man like John Lewis?

Mary: During the early days of his campaign, Obama had to dispel the false narrative that his experience as the child of an African father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, meant he would be unable to relate to the civil rights struggles that shaped John Lewis’ leadership. In Obama’s speech at the Brown Chapel — before an audience that included all the great black preachers, including the Reverend C.T. Vivian — another civil rights icon who also died July 17 — Obama alluded to his Kenyan grandfather’s life as a “cook” and a “houseboy” to America’s slavery era.

“He had to carry a passbook around because Africans in their own country could not move about freely,” Obama said.

Lynn: That was the day Obama said he was part of the “Joshua” generation, taking the baton from leaders like Lewis and others who were in the “Moses” generation. In 2007, we wrote about how the Clintons — Bill and Hillary — and Obama — were trying to claim the legacy of the voting rights battles that had been fought. In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act that became law in 1965, months after Selma. A new version passed in the Democratic House and is stalled in the Republican Senate. It’s the post-Joshua post- Obama generation, coming of age in the George Floyd/President Donald Trump era, who will be standing on the shoulders of Lewis.

How will John Lewis’ passing impact this new civil rights movement happening now?

Mary: His death really raises the issue of who comes next? The old civil rights movement dealt with ending the kind of discrimination that kept Black people from getting good-paying jobs and from living in certain neighborhoods or going to better schools. This new civil rights movement is about exposing and ridding our society of the commonplace biases that undermine a Black person’s dignity — false arrests and police brutality, for instance. Ironically, here in this moment as great leaders like John Lewis pass on, we are saying we are not going to accept it anymore. We are not going to live with it.

Lynn: Picking up on your point about this new civil rights movement: What strikes me is how decentralized the emerging “movement” is right now. Perhaps his legacy — his impact — is to remember Lewis was beaten at the bridge, but not beat.

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