Meacham’s account is loving and instructive. In his portrayal, Lewis was not as visionary as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., or as arresting as Malcolm X, or as captivating as Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture). But to Meacham he was more admirable than any of them in terms of his dogged determination, his unimpeachable personal decency and his unshakable faith that seeking justice by noble means would ultimately lead to redemption. Lewis displayed in action, Meacham insists, what Abraham Lincoln alluded to when he lauded “the better angels of our nature.” The American present and future, Meacham declares, “may in many ways hinge on the extent to which the rest of us can draw lessons from his example.”
He relates with verve the story of Lewis’s early manhood, when he participated in the most stirring Southern civil rights battles of the 1960s. As one of his comrades, Bernard LaFayette Jr., put it, he “was always on the front line, wherever the front line was.” He participated in sit-ins, suffering his first arrest in Nashville on Feb. 27, 1960, when he refused to leave a lunch counter at an establishment that refused to serve food to blacks. Over the course of his life he would be arrested an additional 44 times. He participated in the Freedom Rides in 1961, enduring a beating in Rock Hill, S.C., and incarceration in the notorious Parchman Farm, a Mississippi penitentiary.
He was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, representing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He led the Bloody Sunday demonstration of March 7, 1965, in Selma, Ala., that was broken up by tear gas, horse-mounted deputies and baton-wielding policemen, one of whom whacked Lewis with sufficient force to leave him with a severe concussion. That act of naked repression became one of the iconic scenes of the Second Reconstruction and helped propel the era’s most far-reaching civil rights legislation: the Voting Rights Act.
“His Truth Is Marching On” makes two important points especially well. The first has to do with a feature of the Black freedom movement that is often neglected. The movement battled on two fronts: One was the external fight against white-supremacist policies. It entailed confronting White authorities. The other was a fight within Black communities. It entailed confronting Blacks who had accommodated themselves to pigmentocracy. To disobey White strangers with whom you shared no affection was one thing. Even more difficult was disobeying relatives and associates whom you loved. Lewis revered his mother and father. But they urged him to avoid civil rights activism, which they termed “that mess.” To pursue his fight against racial segregation and his quest to create “the Beloved Community” — what he later described as “nothing less than the Christian concept of the Kingdom of God on earth” — Lewis had to reject his parents’ counsel. That is a fraught step for anyone. It was particularly daunting for a vulnerable, Southern teenager in the circumstances of the early 1960s.
Praiseworthy, too, is Meacham’s care in emphasizing the breadth of the leadership that stepped forward so splendidly to guide the Black freedom movement. Lewis was roused not only by the incomparable King. He was also inspired by a bevy of remarkable models — the Rev. James Lawson, A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer, Bayard Rustin — including women whose contributions continue to be unfairly minimized on account of sexism: Ella Baker (the activist who urged students to create the independent platform that became SNCC), Septima Clark (the educator in South Carolina who established “citizenship schools” to organize unlettered poor folk) and Diane Nash (the intrepid dissident who refused to allow violence to thwart the Freedom Rides).
“His Truth Is Marching On” would have benefited from more creative tension between its author and his hero. On the things that appear to matter most to Meacham, he and Lewis are, in his view, in almost complete unison. Both, for example, seem to regard faith in the eventual triumph of good as an ethical imperative. Meacham approvingly portrays Lewis repeatedly asserting that he, the civil rights movement and, indeed, the United States of America stand on “the right side of history.” “We have a mission, and we have a mandate to be on the right side of history,” Lewis proclaimed in 2019 during a speech urging the impeachment of President Trump. But how does he know in which direction history proceeds? And what does the trajectory of history have to do with the morality of conduct? Just suppose it could be shown that history is actually on the side of tyranny, oppression and hatred. Would that justify embracing wrongdoing? More questioning on Meacham’s part would have provided a salutary interruption for cheerleading that, at last, becomes a bit boring.
Meacham is not much interested in excavating problems. He gingerly skirts them as if complexities were obstacles as opposed to opportunities. What, for example, are the racial politics behind Lewis’s attractiveness to some Whites? Is it merely an uncomplicated appreciation of his undeniably heroic traits? Or were there things related to race that made Lewis more palatable than, say, Julian Bond (another standout in SNCC whom Lewis defeated in 1986 to claim a seat in Congress)? Meacham quotes the Rev. Joseph Lowery suggesting that a good many Whites were drawn to Lewis’s apparent humility: “White people tend to like humble black folk.” Lowery’s observation provides an opening into a complex topic that might be difficult to investigate but that warrants the exploration Meacham avoids. I suspect he could have come up with useful additional illumination had he pressed a bit further.
Meacham says little about Lewis’s 33 years in the House of Representatives. Like Thurgood Marshall, another “Mr. Civil Rights,” Lewis’s accomplishments before attaining the validation of officeholding eclipsed his later doings, imposing upon him the burden of a fabulous youthful reputation. Future biographers will presumably cover the lows and highs of his career as an electoral politician, assessing in detail the validity of his title as the conscience of the Congress.
But “His Truth Is Marching On” is a valuable discussion of an extraordinary man who deserves our everlasting admiration and gratitude.
His Truth Is Marching On
John Lewis and the Power of Hope
By Jon Meacham
Random House. 354 pp. $30