John Lewis: A Brother
I met John Lewis during the1964 Mississippi Summer Project, later known as Mississippi Freedom Summer. I had heard him speak at the March On Washington in August of 1963. He was very focused and forceful, but his speech was changed because some felt it called for violence, and the following passage was cut: “We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground-nonviolently…” Today, this seems just factual, not violent at all. Personally, John was a quiet, thoughtful man who listened carefully to everyone with whom he spoke. Meeting him, I saw him as the nonviolent leader and peacekeeper of SNCC. He was soft-spoken and differential, not like successive leaders including Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture).
The most contact I had with John in Mississippi was at Waveland, a resort on the Gulf of Mexico, during a retreat at the end of the summer where we evaluated all of our efforts and programs that summer, and devised strategies for the coming year. John entertained everyone who wanted to speak, and SNCC was a “bottom up” kind of organization, where every voice was heard. He was in charge, but spoke sparingly and listened intently. Stokely, however, was brash and, to some, hurtful. One woman wanted to discuss the position of women in the movement. Stokley stood and said, “The position of women in the movement is mostly prone”. Stokely immediately left the meeting to jeers and groans. Later, he would assume John’s role as the leader of SNCC, and made famous Black Power. When he uttered these words, I thought that is just what we were doing the summer of 1964, helping empower the Black community.
During the Summer of 1964 in Mississippi, John Lewis, Bob Moses, and Dave Dennis were the leaders of Freedom Summer. They were dealing with day to day issues and devising strategies that would impact all we did that summer. This included organizing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, operating Freedom Schools, conducting voter registration drives, and putting forth candidates for the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (ASCS). John grew up on a farm, and considered this campaign to be close to his heart.
This agency (ASCS) made available low interest loans to farmers, provided guaranteed prices for commodities, and generally supported agriculture in the United States. But those benefits did not reach Black farmers in Mississippi. In Madison County, where I worked, 60% of the farmland was owned by Black farmers, but there had never been a Black farmer on the local ASCS board. On December 4, 1964, the first Black farmer was elected to this board, Luther Honeysucker of Madison County!
John sustained a fractured skull when he was attacked during Bloody Sunday, a precursor to the actual march from Selma to Montgomery. I saw him during the planning and execution of that historic march. He was not feeling well, but still made his presence known, and was still the patient and humble person he always was.
John ran for and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1987. Whenever I went to Washington, D.C., I always visited John’s office. He was cordial and welcoming. Once I met him on the street in Washington, D.C., and as always when meeting John, I gave him a big hug. He always hugged back, and called me “brother”. This was John’s trademark, calling people “brother” or “sister”, his affirmation of your humanity and recognition of that shared commonality. We are all John’s sisters and brothers.