Tag Archives: Civil Rights

RIP: Representative John Lewis (21 February 1940 – 17 July 2020)

“Oh Freedom” sung by Earl R. Nance and group

Thoughts on watching the body of Civil Rights and Justice Warrior, Representative John Lewis, being ferried in a horse-drawn wagon across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

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“And before I’d be a slave I’ll be buried to my grave”

‘Oh Freedom’, an African American freedom song associated with the U.S. Civil Rights movement but actually written after the U.S. Civil War (12 April 1860 – 9 April 1865). A version was first recorded by Earl R. Nance (with Clarence Dooley, Tenor Vocal & Guitar; Madie Nance, Soprano Vocal; Helen Nance, Alto Vocal & Mandolin) August 26, 1931 in Richmond, Indiana. (video, above)

Most of us are more familiar with the Odetta (1957), Harry Belafonte (1960) or Joan Baez (1963 March on Washington) versions but the original recording takes me to an earlier place in our country’s history.

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“get out there and get in the way, get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and be yourself.”
– John Lewis, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, March 1, 2020 (a motivator to the end!)

John Lewis also spoke similar words to young people at the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools National Training in June 2014. Marion Wright Edelman, founder of the Fund wrote, “As he spoke to today’s young Freedom Schools leaders John Lewis told them that when he was their age getting into “necessary trouble” shaped his life’s mission. As he explained, he grew up poor in rural Troy, Alabama, where his father, a former tenant farmer, had saved enough money to buy his own land. He worked on the farm alongside the rest of his family but was always desperate to get an education. A teacher encouraged him over and over to read all he could. Although he wasn’t allowed in his segregated county library like so many of our generation, he did his best: “I tried to read everything, the few books we had at home, the magazines. We were too poor to have a subscription to the local newspaper, but my grandfather had one, and when he would finish reading his newspaper each day, I would get that newspaper and read it.” He also listened to the radio to learn more about the news outside his small community, and eventually started hearing about new events that would change his life: “In 1955, 15 years old in the 10th grade, I heard of Rosa Parks. I heard of Martin Luther King, Jr. I heard his voice on an old radio, and it seemed like he was saying, “John Lewis, you, too, can do something . . . You can make a contribution.”

John Lewis decided then that was exactly what he would do. He started with the library: “So in 1956, 16 years old, some of my brothers and sisters and cousins, we went down to the public library in the little town of Troy, Alabama, trying to get a library card, trying to check out some books, and we were told by the librarian that the library is for Whites only and not for coloreds.” A year later, as a high school senior he decided to apply to Troy State College (now Troy University), a White college close to his home—but his application was ignored and unanswered. John Lewis was stopped temporarily—but he was not finished.

He told the very rapt audience that getting into necessary trouble in order to stand up for what is right is required of us all: “If we fail to do it, history will not be kind to us.” And he reminded us that this is true even when there is a terrible cost, as with the murders of the three Freedom Summer volunteers in Philadelphia, Mississippi: “Andy Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney. I knew these three young men. On the night of June 21st, 1964, almost 50 years ago, these three young men were detained, taken to jail, taken out, turned over to the Klan, where they were beaten and shot and killed. They didn’t die in the Middle East or Eastern Europe or Vietnam or in Central or South America. They died right here in our own country, and they must be looked upon as the founding fathers of the new America, a new way of doing things, a new way of life.””

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Looking across the aisle, I also found this interesting scene on the morning TV show The View (transcript from The Decider):

“[Meghan] McCain offered her own reflection on Lewis’ legacy with a personal story about meeting him at her father’s office when she was 14. “It was important to [her father] that I heard this man’s story and knew who he was,” said the co-host. “I can remember when I was 14 not really ever seeing my dad deferential or in awe of anyone, and that was one of the first times.”

McCain added that while Lewis and her father “ended up having a political disagreement” when Sen. McCain ran for president — “I have no interest in rehashing it right now,” she said — but they were able to squash it. “When my dad passed, John Lewis put out one of the more beautiful statements of anyone,” she recalled.”

John Lewis – a great American humanist.