Review: His Truth is Marching On

His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope, John Meacham (Afterword by John Lewis). New York: Random House, 2020.

Summary: An account of the life of Congressman John Lewis, focusing on the years of his leadership in the civil rights movement and the faith, hope, commitment to non-violence and the Beloved Community that sustained him.

We lost a hero this summer in the death of Congressman John Lewis. We may remember the last photos of him, days before his death on Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC, one more expression of the arc of a life spent in the hope that the nation would recognize the gift that his people are and that one day, his hope of Dr. King’s Beloved Community would be realized. We might also remember the image of him being clubbed to the ground on the approaches to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, a day he nearly lost his life. There is so much that came before, and between these images. In this new work, historian Jon Meacham offers a historical account coupled with Lewis’s recollections, that helps us understand not only the heroic work of this civil rights icon, but the wellsprings of motivation that spurred his long march.

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Meacham begins with his ancestry, great-grandchild of a slave, child of sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama, growing up deep in the Jim Crow South in segregated schools, where a look, an inappropriate word might cost one’s life if you were black. Lewis was a child of the black church who knew he wanted to be a preacher, and practiced on the chickens on his parents farm. His faith, and early uneasiness with the inequities that did not measure up to the American dream meant “that the Lord had to be concerned with the ways we lived our lives right here on earth, that everything we did, or didn’t do in our lives had to be more than just a means of making our way to heaven.” Then he heard the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio and heard someone who gave voice to his growing calling and conviction., leading to pursuing seminary studies at the American Baptist Seminary in Nashville.

Meacham accounts how this led to sit-ins at restaurants, the Freedom Rides, the Children’s Crusade and the March on Washington, where he gave one of the most impassioned speeches as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), refusing to back away from criticism of the Kennedy administration. Meacham describes the death of Kennedy, the civil rights leadership of Johnson, and Lewis’s growing exile from SNCC, from those like Stokely Carmichael who had tired of the slow progress of non-violent protest, that left him to go to Selma alone rather than with the SNCC. Again and again his principles led him to get into “good trouble.”

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Through it all, including the deaths of King and Bobby Kennedy, he persisted, through multiple beatings and arrests. Much of this work chronicles his years in the civil rights movement, leaving the final chapter to summarize his years in Congress and legacy. What Meacham focuses on throughout are the theological convictions, rooted in Lewis’s belief in the Spirit of History, his faith in a loving God, and his belief that America’s ideals would prevail over America’s failings. Second is a focus on Lewis’s bedrock conviction of pursuing non-violent resistance rooted in a belief of the dignity of all people in the image of God, even one’s enemies, developed from the Bible, Dr. King, James Lawson and the Highlander Workshops, and the principles of Gandhi. The narrative is one of how Lewis “walked the talk” bearing numerous beatings without retaliation, sacrificing his leadership for his principles. Finally, Lewis lived toward a vision of America as Dr. King’s “Beloved Community.” From marches and activism to his years in politics, Meacham shows how he strove for the peace with justice that would overcome divisions between black and white. Meacham gives John Lewis the last word in his afterword:

We won the battles of the 1960’s. But the war for justice, the war to make America both great and good, goes on. We the People are not a united people right now. We rarely are, but our divisions and our tribalism are especially acute. Many Americans have lost faith in the idea that what binds us together is more important than what separates us. Now as before, we have to choose, as Dr. King once put it, between community and chaos.

John Lewis never lost faith that what binds us together matters most and never stopped pursuing community rather than chaos. Meacham’s book leaves us the question of what will we believe and pursue in the days ahead. How we answer that may be decisive not only for our lives but also for our country.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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