But some of Lewis’s most admirable moments came shortly before the events of March 7, 1965. Most other leaders in the organization Lewis headed, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), opposed the march in Selma, Ala. Some thought it was a risky stunt that would have little effect. Some had given up on the possibility of working within the system for a strong voting rights law. According to historian Taylor Branch, Lewis was “almost alone” in supporting the march to Montgomery.
“If people want to march, I’m going to march with them,” Lewis told his skeptical colleagues. “You decided what you want to do, but I’m going to march.”
This was the lonely decision that brought Lewis to the bridge on the crisp March day that would become known as “Bloody Sunday.” He was effectively siding with the approach of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — the strategy of disciplined, Christian nonviolence — over King’s critics in the movement. Not long afterward, this association cost Lewis dearly. He was ousted as leader of the SNCC, an organization he helped to found.
Lewis was not a moderate by any reasonable definition. He was an advocate, not just of nonviolence but of “aggressive non-violent action.” His speech at the March on Washington was judged too radical in tone by elders in the movement. Even his modified text said: “We are involved in a serious social revolution. By and large, American politics is dominated by politicians who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation.”
Yet Lewis sided with King in embracing a distinctly Christian vision of the “beloved community.” Lewis believed in the promise of interracial democracy. He was an integrationist at a time when many young activists were turning to separatism. And he believed that the movement for civil rights “was based on the simple truth of the Great Teacher: love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Lewis’s faith was a source of personal strength in the face of cruelty. It also provided a framework for his activism. Like King, he did not believe in inevitable progress. Lewis did not think that those who exercise unjust power would give up their privileges easily. But the willing embrace of sacrifice in a good cause could, in his view, break down the resistance to justice. Redemptive suffering, Lewis wrote, “opens us and those around us to a force beyond ourselves, a force that is right and moral, the force of righteous truth that is at the basis of all human conscience.”
Lewis was addressing the primary decision that all of us face in pursuing our ideals. Is the answer to hatred the mobilization of equal and opposite hatred? Or does love have the peculiar power to break and change the hardest hearts? Lewis staked his life, again and again, on the second option.
In the aftermath of events in Selma, King went to Brown Chapel AME to pay tribute to the marchers. “If a man happens to be 36 years old, as I happen to be, and some great truth stands before the door of his life, some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right,” King said, and “he is afraid his home will get bombed, or he is afraid that he will lose his job, or he is afraid that he will be shot, or beat down by state troopers, he may go on and live until he is 80, [but] he’s just as dead at 36 as he would be at 80, and the cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for what is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.”
When his breathing stopped at age 80, John Lewis had been a man fully alive for all of his days.