Lonnie Bunch on John Lewis

Dedication Ceremony of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Lonnie Bunch is the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and was the founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. Over at Politico he reflects on the life of civil rights activist and congressman John Lewis.

Here is a taste:

I first got to know Congressman Lewis when the Smithsonian hired me to make real the centurylong dream of a museum on the National Mall dedicated to the history and culture of African Americans. Without his persistence, the museum might never have existed. Upon his election to office in 1986, one of the first bills Lewis introduced was legislation to create the museum. He continued to champion it, building enthusiasm for the project among his colleagues and constituents for 15 years, before the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act finally passed the House and Senate and was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

Every time I met with the congressman, I was struck by his patience and perseverance, qualities one would expect from someone who had been deeply involved in the struggle for civil rights since he was a teenager. Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s radio sermons and the movement to integrate Alabama’s schools, John Lewis gave his first sermon at Macedonia Baptist Church in Troy, Alabama, when he was just 15. When he later attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary, he tried to start a campus chapter of the NAACP, only to encounter resistance from the school’s leaders, who were reluctant to lose the white support they counted on. Lewis became adept at overcoming resistance throughout his life and shared wisdom about doing so with many people—myself included. As I struggled to build the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I cannot count the number of times I looked to his example of fighting the good fight every day.

Read the entire piece here.

Barack Obama on the passing of John Lewis

Obama and Lewis

On Medium:

America is a constant work in progress. What gives each new generation purpose is to take up the unfinished work of the last and carry it further — to speak out for what’s right, to challenge an unjust status quo, and to imagine a better world.

John Lewis — one of the original Freedom Riders, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, leader of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Member of Congress representing the people of Georgia for 33 years — not only assumed that responsibility, he made it his life’s work. He loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise. And through the decades, he not only gave all of himself to the cause of freedom and justice, but inspired generations that followed to try to live up to his example.

Read the rest here.

What I wrote about John Lewis in *Believe Me*

Lewis dead

p.176: “But the problem with Donald Trump’s use of American history goes well beyond his desire to make America great again or his regular references to some of the darker moments in our past–moments that have tended to divide Americans rather than unite them. His approach to history also reveals his narcissism. When Trump says that he doesn’t care how ‘America first’ was used in the 1940s, or claims to be ignorant of Nixon’s use of ‘law and order,’ he shows his inability to understand himself as part of a larger American story. As Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote in the wake of Trump’s pre-inauguration Twitter attack on civil rights icon John Lewis, a veteran of nonviolent marches who was severely beaten at Selma: ‘Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American story he is about to enter.’

p.185: “As I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, I wondered if I could ever muster the courage of John Lewis and Joanne Bland as they marched into the face of terror on Bloody Sunday. Such audacity requires hope.

Believe Me 3d

John Lewis, RIP

Lewis dead

Sad news. Here is Katharine Q. Seelye of The New York Times:

Representative John Lewis, a son of sharecroppers and an apostle of nonviolence who was bloodied at Selma and across the Jim Crow South in the historic struggle for racial equality and who then carried a mantle of moral authority into Congress, died on Friday. He was 80.

His death was confirmed by a senior Democratic official.

He announced on Dec. 29 that he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and vowed to fight it with the same passion with which he had battled racial injustice. “I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life,” he said.

On the front lines of the bloody campaign to end Jim Crow laws, with blows to his body and a fractured skull to prove it, Mr. Lewis was a valiant stalwart of the civil rights movement and the last surviving speaker at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.

More than a half-century later, after the killing in May of George Floyd, a Black man in police custody in Minneapolis, Mr. Lewis welcomed the resulting global demonstrations against systemic racism and the police killings of Black people. He saw those demonstrations, the largest protest movement in American history, as a continuation of his life’s work, though his illness had left him to watch from the sideline.

Read the rest here.

Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights Tour: Day 4

For previous posts in this series click here.

We began Day 4 in Montgomery, Alabama.  (Montgomery is the only city where we are spending two nights.  This means that we didn’t have to pack our suitcases this yesterday!).

In the morning we made quick stops at some of Montgomery’s most iconic historical sites. As we entered the area around the Alabama State Capitol I was struck by the juxtaposition between Confederate States of America sites and Civil Rights Movement sites.  I am sure historians and scholars have written about these juxtapositions, but when you see them for the first time they are quite striking.  (If you know of any good books or articles that deal with these commemorative juxtapositions in Montgomery please let me know in the comments section).

As our bus entered this part of the city we passed the First White House of the Confederacy, the home of Jefferson Davis during the brief period when Montgomery was the capital of the Confederacy. (The Confederate capital moved to Richmond, Virginia in August 1861).

As a series of massive Alabama government buildings (including the capitol building) came into sight I was immediately struck by their whiteness.  Seriously, these buildings are painted in a very bright white.  I don’t know if they were that white during the 1965 Voting Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, but as I surveyed the landscape I tried to imagine what it was like on Sunday, March 25, 1965 to see the color of these buildings in the background as 25,000 people–many of them African Americans– arrived at the capitol to hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “How Long, Not Long” speech.

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Office building in Alabama capitol area

 

I was also struck by the location of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the church that Martin Luther King Jr. served from 1954-1960.  It is only a few hundred yards from the Alabama State Capitol Building where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated President of the Confederate States of America and where the Constitution of the Confederate States of America was written.  Every Sunday morning King and his congregation would step out of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and into the whiteness of the built environment.  It was a material manifestation of Alabama’s historical commitment to white supremacy.

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View of the Alabama State Capitol from the steps of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

 

As you leave Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and walk up Dexter Avenue toward the Capitol Building, you will see, on the right side of the road, a monument commemorating the path of Jefferson Davis’s inauguration parade.  It was placed at this site in 1942. Directly across the street on Dexter Avenue is a monument commemorating the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights march.  It looks very new.  I did my best to capture this contrast here:

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Selma to Montgomery march monument is in foreground.  Jefferson Davis inaugural parade monument is in upper right of the picture (monument with water marks behind gray car)

After our visit to the capitol area, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church parsonage, and the homes of some of the leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association, we headed over to the Montgomery headquarters of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).  If you are familiar with Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercyyou are familiar with the work of EJI.  I have a lot to say about EJI, so I think I will save those thoughts for another post that I hope to get up later today.

We spent the afternoon in Selma.  Our guide was Joanne Bland, a civil rights activist who, as an eleven-year-old girl, marched in all three Edmund Pettus Bridge marches.  She took us to the Brown Chapel AME Church, the starting point of the March 7, 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march.  In the back of the church is an outdoor concrete slab that served as the launching point of the march.  Bland asked us to pick up a stone from the crumbling slab (she is trying to get the slab refurbished) and hold it up as a reminder of the Selma marchers.  She challenged us to show this kind of courage in our lives whenever we encounter injustice.

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Joanne  Bland tells her story

Bland showed us some historical sites in Selma, took us to a local fruit stand so she could buy some peaches, and then told us her experience during the 1965 voting rights marches.  We then made our own march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  (Our tour guide Todd Allen asked my daughter Caroline to lead us across the bridge.  It will be an experience she will never forget.  Later in the day Todd asked Caroline what she thought about playing the role of John Lewis in our march).  It was a moving end to a very moving day.

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Caroline is about to lead us across the Edmund Pettus Bridge

Tomorrow we will spend half the day in Montgomery and the other half in Birmingham. Stay tuned.  Here are a couple more pics:

 

 

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Selma 8

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church Parsonage

Was Michael Brown "Lynched?"

My colleague Jim LaGrand  has some very thoughtful things to say about the way we use historical analogies in our public statements about race in America .  Check out Jim’s piece entitled “Selma Is Now? No Not Really.”  It is up today at History News Network.

Here is a taste:

Statements similar to Legend’s “Selma is now” have been made many times in the months since Michael Brown’s tragic death at the hands of policeman Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. In fact, Ferguson has become a Rorschach test – not just on the state of race relations today, but on the past as well through the power of historical analogy. Like John Legend, congressman and civil rights veteran John Lewis has compared Ferguson to Selma in 1965. On college campuses, analogies comparing Ferguson to 1950s Little Rock and Michael Brown to Emmett Till have been heard.
Some have gone deeper into America’s history of race relations looking for analogies. James Lawson, who during the 1950s and 1960s trained hundreds of young people in non-violence resistance, today calls “what happened in Ferguson lynching.” So too historian Jelani Cobb writes about “the long shadow of lynching” in Ferguson. Some protesters in St Louis and Berkeley dramatized their frustration at events in Ferguson through mock lynchings.
These statements and actions are all rooted in the belief that little to nothing has changed in race relations from the Jim Crow era of the 1890s-1950s to the present day. If one of the tasks of History is to assess the complex relationship between change and continuity over time, these voices suggest that on the issue of race and race relations, the answer is pretty simple. 2014 = 1965 or 1955 or the 1890s.
But in looking at the past, it’s hard to make these claims hold up. The Jim Crow era stands as a distinctly grim, brutal period in America’s history for its Black citizens. After the end of Reconstruction, Black men who had recently won the franchise had it effectively taken away. The promise that Black Americans would own the product of their labor too became a bitter lie. All public spaces in the Jim Crow South became divided by the color line.
This racial code was enforced through lynchings and other forms of brutal violence. The Equal Justice Initiative has recently documented 3,959 African-Americans lynched between 1877 and 1950. Lynch mobs cast a wide net. They targeted Black men accused of crimes, those accused or suspected of sexual relations with white women, and those seen as being “impudent to white man,” in the words of one lynching record. Lynchings were barbaric, often involving the ritualistic burning and dismemberment of dead bodies. Not for nothing do many historians refer to 1890-1920 as the nadir of African-American history.

And he concludes:

…We don’t live in a post-racial America. But neither do we live in Jim Crow or 1950s America, despite what many recent analogies would suggest. Not every overbearing authority can be a Bull Connor, not every place of tension is Selma in 1965 or Little Rock in 1957. Not every mistreatment can be labeled a lynching. Otherwise, the power and influence of these historical people and places and practices may be lost.
The moral capital of the civil rights movement risks going bankrupt if it’s drawn on excessively and unconvincingly. I hope that when future Black History Months come around, my students (and all Americans) will have retained the capacity to look at the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement with the accuracy needed for genuine knowledge and informed passion.