Jon Meacham: why I chose to write about John Lewis

Chris Schluep on September 28, 2020
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John Meacham on why he chose to write about John Lewis

When civil rights legend John Lewis died in July, we realized we had lost a giant. The acclaimed historian Jon Meacham was already working on a book about Lewis, and when it published in late August it became an instant best seller. Amazon reached out to Meacham to ask why he chose to write about Lewis, a man who he says is "as important to the story of our nation as any of our Founding Fathers."

I wrote His Truth is Marching On to answer the question: Why was John Lewis marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965? And what can we learn from Lewis’ example as we continue to confront the complexities of history? My book is an effort to better understand a man who would persistently and physically bear witness as he fought for a more equitable world, a man who was arrested 45 times over the course of a movement that has done more to change America for the better than any single domestic undertaking since the Civil War, joining emancipation and women’s suffrage as brilliant chapters in an uneven yet unfolding national story. I also wanted to show the theological understanding Lewis brought to the struggle, and the utility of that vision as America confronts systemic racism in the twenty-first century.

As important to the story of our nation as any of our Founding Fathers, Lewis’s story is a testament to the unambiguous belief that justice can be served in a fallen world. As a young man—little more than a child, really—he had contended against evil with everything he had. And he had prevailed. As always in human affairs, the question was: What now? Was Lewis a relic of a bygone age, a comfortable emblem of lost days, a heroic figure from a vanished world? Or did the truth he had intuited in Troy, Alabama, the worldview he had formulated in Jim Lawson’s workshops in Nashville, the scars he bore from Rock Hill, Montgomery, and Selma—could these things illuminate life in America in the twenty-first century? Lewis believed so. “If Martin Luther King, Jr., were here today, he would still be saying we are all in this together,” he said. “Maybe, just maybe he would say to us today that our forefathers and our foremothers all came here in a different ship to this land, to this great country, but we are all now in the same boat. Maybe in a different ship, but we are all now in the same boat. He would be saying that it doesn’t matter whether we are Black or white or Hispanic or Asian American or Native American, whether we are Democrats or Republicans or independent, that we are one people. We are one house. We are one family. It doesn’t matter, we have to find a way to live together. We have to find a way to understand each other. We have to find a way to make peace with each other.” So easy to say, so easy to quote. But there’s nothing harder to do, nothing harder to put into action, nothing harder to translate from sentiment to substance. “I have a deep sense of restlessness—I wish I could say more, do more, to save us, to press on.” Yet he tried.

Standing in Selma on that last march in 2020, Lewis mused to his fellow pilgrims about what had come to pass and what lay ahead. “We took a little walk to try to dramatize the need for the rights of all of our people to be able to participate in the democratic process,” he said. “In an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion, we were walking, not saying a word. We were beaten. Tear-gassed. Bullwhipped. On this bridge, some of us gave a little blood to help redeem the soul of America. Our country is a better country, we are a better people, but we still have a distance to travel, to go, before we get there. I want to thank each and every one of you for being here”— and with this his voice raised almost to a shout, which in the Bible was a sign of God’s intervention in human affairs—“for not giving up, for not giving in, for keeping the faith, for keeping your eyes on the prize. You’re wonderful. You’re beautiful. All of you look so good."

A voice from the crowd called out, “We love you, John.”

“I—I love you, too,” he said. He paused. The breeze blew. The clouds shifted. “We have a lot of work to do,” Lewis said. “So don’t get weary! Keep the faith!” Falling into the vernacular of the old days, he called for forward motion, for marching feet: “Keep picking ‘em up,” he cried, “and puttin’ ‘em down.” It was, after all, what he’d always done.

—Jon Meacham



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