02:17 - Source: CNN
Rep. John Lewis: 'Get in good trouble' (2014)
Washington CNN —  

On Sunday, in light of the news that Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia had received the diagnosis that he has Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, the journalist Adam Serwer tweeted: “I don’t think we are prepared as a society for what happens to public memory when the generations that lived through Jim Crow leave us.”

Serwer’s was a keen – and grim – observation. The chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s and a leading organizer of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches (on top of so much else), 79-year-old Lewis is a civil rights icon, and for more than half a century has been an accelerant of some of the noblest parts of American history.

How to preserve the legacy of that work – of an era that saw the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 signed into law – when its fruits are under attack today?

It’s a big question. And one that ought to remind us of the dangers of a historical record that doesn’t fully and honestly capture all that civil rights leaders were up against – a state trooper fractured Lewis’ skull in Selma – as they held a mirror up to a bigoted society.

Take, for instance, the whitewashing of one of Lewis’ contemporaries: Martin Luther King Jr. In life, many white Americans hated King. They viewed him as little more than, in the words of former South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, “an outside agitator, bent on stirring people up.” It wasn’t until after King’s assassination in 1968, as the memory of him slowly became politically palatable, that more white Americans began to embrace him.

Or rather, to warm to a warped image of him.

As Jason Sokol, a historian of the mid-century civil rights movement, explained in 2017: “How (white Americans) got from loathing to loving is less a story about growing tolerance and diminishing racism, and more about the ways that Dr. King’s legacy has been scrubbed and blunted.” Sokol explored how, over the course of decades, King’s radicalism – his anti-poverty advocacy, his flaying of white moderates – has been jettisoned in favor of centering one soothing line from his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Consider, too, a more recent example: Elijah Cummings. In the wake of the Maryland congressman’s death in October, his colleagues recalled how “everyone wanted to hear what Elijah had to say,” how “he had a unique ability to separate the personal from the work” and how “the story of Elijah’s life would benefit everyone, regardless of political ideation.”

As I wrote at the time, these sentiments, while sincere, had a more sinister subtext. They conjured a specter that’s long hovered over prominent black Americans: the queasy notion of racial transcendence – that some black people “rise above” their blackness to achieve white mainstream appeal. It’s a quietly harmful way to strip away the more subversive elements of certain civil rights leaders and sanitize the nasty world they risked their lives to change.

While reading about Lewis’ cancer diagnosis and the profound impact the 17-term congressman has had on American politics, I remembered a 2018 conversation I had with Jeanne Theoharis, a professor of political science at the City University of New York–Brooklyn College. We covered similar territory, interrogating why it’s so vital to imprint a comprehensive, unvarnished record of civil rights history on our collective brain. There’s the unity that shared experience fuels, very definitely, but that isn’t all.

“There’s a sepia-tone lens through which we often see the civil rights movement: It doesn’t seem like it happened in places familiar to us, and it doesn’t seem like it was peopled by people we know,” Theoharis told me. “With a more complete history, we begin to see that these are people like us.”

Lewis is someone – one of the vanishingly few remaining from his generation – who refuses to allow us to view the past through such a distorted and distant lens. Instead, he models what rigorous historical scrutiny looks like, in turn empowering us to inherit that task from him.

Or as he said in a statement on Sunday: “I have decided to do what I know to do and do what I have always done: I am going to fight it and keep fighting for the Beloved Community. We still have many bridges to cross.”