Radicalism Restrained: The Political Legacy of John Lewis

Abraham Ratner


I.  “Patience is a dirty and nasty word”

The late John Lewis was not just an activist and congressman but a living legend—and so also a unique sort of politician. He was folklore in the flesh, and for three decades he reigned easily in Georgia’s 5th district, where a constituency that revered him punched his ticket to Washington seventeen times. He rarely ever faced a primary challenger.

But as Lewis battled terminal illness, one emerged last year: a young Atlantan named Barrington Martin II, a paralegal and special education teacher who had been one of Lewis’s constituents since the day he was born. His platform featured a range of reforms, from congressional term limits to a federal minimum teachers’ salary and the legalization of marijuana; its centerpieces were proposals for two big public programs, a universal basic income and universal guaranteed healthcare. He called it “The People’s Bailout.”

“I have family members that live in these forgotten-about, underserved communities, and they have looked the same since I was a child, and I am 32 years old,” he told me in September of last year. “And this has all been happening under the watch of the specific leadership in place. And if that’s the case, they don’t have a voice—they don’t have anyone fighting for their cause.”

He hopes the main thing people took away from his campaign is that “there are distinct solutions to many of the issues we have today. These crumbs that the government has been giving you and you’ve been accepting, those days are no more, those days are over with. Because now there is so much abundance. You should be demanding more from your government instead of accepting what they’re giving you.”

“You can’t say anything negative about a man who put his life on the line for the lives of millions of others,” he says of Lewis. “We praise him, we love him and adore him for the work that he did.”

“However, it’s important to state that there’s a distinct difference between John Lewis as a legislator and a congressman, and the civil rights legend John Lewis. And I think that’s never truly discussed.”

♦♦♦

The titanic legacy of John Lewis, Civil Rights Legend, transcends even the scope of his practical impact, which was enormous: his participation in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s was central to some of the movement’s most hard-fought and transformative victories. But there was also the conspicuous, dauntlessly physical nature of his investment in racial justice. He put his body on the line in the face of brutal and certain violence to register Black voters and demand equal protection under the law across the Jim Crow South; he sought and met violence with forgiveness and love, imperturbable in his determination to wage a non-violent war of attrition against a vicious apartheid order.

This is what is so profound about John Lewis, the man and icon, and also what makes the story of his life’s second act somewhat dispiriting. Lewis was an insurgent and a radical determined to bleed as a testament to his own humanity, and he saw that sacrifice gloriously bear fruit; he was also a politician intent on defending some of the very forces that make our society so perniciously unyielding to transformations in social structure and relations. His life proves that sweeping change is possible, power is persistent and cunning, and the arc of the moral universe is long indeed.

Much of this significance has been lost amid Lewis’s beatification, but it is part of the bounty to be excavated from the life of a hero. He was, after all, a congressman for thirty-three years; his legacy is not just moral but political, and it is good practice to assess politics for their efficacy. The dominant, partial story of Lewis’s life coexists uneasily with the societal inequities that festered throughout his tenure and persist beyond his death: his marriage of bold protest to big-tent party politics could (perhaps) befit a nation displaying a robust procedural capacity for reconstruction and restitution, but his own life, and equally the histories of the Black freedom movement, suggest that America is not such a place. They demonstrate a defiant and angry power structure furiously opposed to reforms and perfectly willing to take extralegal measures to impede them. They show us how power begets itself by all manner of disinformation and violence, often with the force of the state behind it.

The untold John Lewis story is one of radicalism thwarted, defused by age and the assimilating force of our institutions. Decades on from the formative work of his life, it suggests that if a multiracial working-class movement is to build and wield power, its politics must be as unapologetically bold as its protest, something Congressman Lewis did not believe.

♦♦♦

John Lewis was born in rural Alabama, raised on 300 acres of farmland that the Lewis family maintains to this day. As a child—along with his nine siblings—he labored long and arduously, tending to the crops and the chickens while also devoting himself fastidiously to his education.

While a student at the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Lewis became involved in civil disobedience workshops led by Reverend James Lawson. In 1960 he was instrumental in a months-long nonviolent campaign that led Nashville to become the first major southern city with desegregated public facilities. When the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) began planning a series of “Freedom Rides” to integrate interstate buses traveling into the deep south, Lewis was among the first group of thirteen young riders. He became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), on whose behalf he helped to organize the March on Washington in 1963, where he also spoke.

He was in Mississippi a year later for 1964’s Freedom Summer. In 1965, he led hundreds in a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery to highlight the continued disenfranchisement of Black southerners. A row of troopers met and charged the orderly marchers. Images of Lewis, hands instinctively signing the universal gestures of nonviolence, body between concrete and a trooper’s billy club, were widely distributed; the event attracted national outrage and helped hasten passage of the Voting Rights Act.

In these years of bold protest, Lewis developed a searing critique of the racial, social, and economic order: his oratory linked these manifestations of injustice and demanded remediation on each front from government. He was no incrementalist. Engaged as he was in a struggle against entrenched systems of political repression and material deprivation, how could he have been?

Following Lewis’s passing, a story circulated about his speech before the March on Washington in 1963, representing SNCC, the initial draft of which was so impatient and anti-establishment that older leaders (A. Phillip Randolph, Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King Jr.), fearing the displeasure of the Kennedy administration, persuaded him to accept a last-minute edit. He ultimately began as follows:

“We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of.  For hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here.  For they are receiving starvation wages, or no wages at all… It is true that we support the administration’s civil rights bill.  We support it with great reservations, however.”

But the original introduction was subtly different—less sparing in its political orientation, more explicit in relating poverty, disenfranchisement, and racial injustice:

“We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of. For hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here. They have no money for their transportation, for they are receiving starvation wages, or no wages at all. In good conscience, we cannot support wholeheartedly the administration’s civil rights bill, for it is too little and too late.”

The simple exclusion of “they have no money for their transportation” excises a direct link between economic exploitation and civic alienation. And removed with it is Lewis’s contemporaneous conclusion about what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964: it is too little and too late.

Other portions struck from the text display an even clearer contrast and even more fervent revolutionary spirit. Lewis wrote,

 “This nation is still a place of cheap political leaders who build their careers on immoral compromises and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation… ‘Patience’ is a dirty and nasty word. We cannot be patient.”

This language was removed wholesale, as was the following:

“We cannot depend on any political party, for both the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence. We all recognize the fact that if any radical social, political and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about.”


II. “There’s not anything free in America”

In Newark, New Jersey it’s a warm night in a waning summer, and Larry Hamm is eating a burger while talking to me about the pursuit of radical change. A grassroots organizer and activist who chaired the Sanders for President New Jersey campaign committee, he has just left a meeting of the People’s Organization for Progress (POP), a community group he founded nearly four decades ago. He, too, recently wrapped a primary challenge.

“I just ran for U.S. Senate— I ran in the primary, against Cory Booker,” he says. “I got almost 119,000 votes statewide. But Cory Booker got over 600,000 votes.”

“We say they’re out of touch. But the question becomes: out of touch with who?” he asks. “Because they’re obviously in touch with somebody, or else they couldn’t get reelected. And this is something that progressives and radicals have to contend with—that we are actually in a competition for power.”

With his candidacy, Hamm joined a continuing wave of electoral insurgents with the will to engage in that competition for power. Democrats have spent decades cultivating corporations and pandering to a perception of the electorate; in the wake of Sanders’s paradigm-shifting five-year crusade against the party establishment, socialists and leftists are leaning into his model and running on their ideals, mounting anti-corporate campaigns under the party banner. This often means emphasizing slow movement-building over the immediate construction of a winning coalition.

“The reason I ran in the [Democratic] primary is because these two political parties have such a lock on the system that the only way you can get to large numbers of people is through them,” Hamm says. “I’m campaigning to win. But if I gotta lose, I would rather lose with 119,000 votes than 10,000. Because by losing with 119,000 they have to say, oh, he does speak for somebody.”

Challengers like Larry Hamm still mostly lose—but more are winning each passing year. And they all perform an act of electoral outreach by refusing to concern themselves with power’s interests and sensibilities.

Eventually I ask my Big Question: why did John Lewis, a person of lifelong courage and conviction who was so ideologically bold in his youth, become far less so with time, outlive his own revolutionary identity, and die a reliable voice for process and moderation?

“In the United States, we do not have a history of radical, progressive political parties that can give the kind of support that progressive elected officials need to get in office and stay in office,” he says. “And that’s particularly true in the Black community.”

In his aspiration to public office, Lewis was confronted with both the partisan duopoly and a dearth of radical infrastructure. Many of the organizations that had been so active and vital decades prior were gone or diminished. SNCC was long-dissolved; the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was less vibrant, aggressive, and influential. “There wasn’t anything in place that could help John Lewis on his way to power. So he had to become part of the party that was a status quo party,” Hamm says.

“Had there been another kind of party in Atlanta, that had demonstrated political acumen, that embraced those ideas that he had as a young man— maybe he would have joined that,” Hamm says. “But there wasn’t one. And that’s one of the reasons, not the only reason, but that’s probably why he didn’t sound as radical [in Congress] as he sounded at the March on Washington in 1963.”     

♦♦♦

Lewis first ran for Congress in 1977, and after losing the Democratic nomination, he joined the Carter administration to direct volunteer service programs. In 1981, he was elected to the Atlanta City Council, where he served for five formative years. In 1986, he mounted a second campaign to represent Georgia’s 5th district in Congress, and this time won a narrow primary victory over his friend and colleague, Julian Bond. Though he became the elected representative of a Black-majority district, his coalition was principally dependent upon more moderate whites, whom Lewis cultivated with unrelenting criticism of Bond for his refusal to take one of the urinalysis (drug) tests that the Reagan administration was championing at the time.

The ascendant Reagan coalition was already reshaping the contours of American politics, and the Democratic party was in the midst of a rightward adaptation. In 1988, Congressman Lewis reveled in the success of presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson, who demanded a spate of new social programs and won Democratic nominating contests in seven states, including Georgia. Four years later, the totality of the Reagan revolution was such that Lewis noted his admiration of Democratic nominee Bill Clinton “for not becoming beholden to Jackson, for not being hijacked by him.” Clinton in turn redrew the electoral map both through his strength with Black southerners and his concessions to what seemed a growing Right majority.

In this odd predicament, Lewis subsumed himself within the Democratic establishment. He took the position of Chief Deputy Whip of the House caucus and became a staunch, visible ally to the Clinton administration in the 1990s and the establishment opposition in the George W. Bush years. When he cultivated and dispensed political capital within the party, it was rarely at the ideological and institutional margins, where it was needed most.

And yet Lewis still stood forcefully against the worst initiatives of the New Democrat coalition. He opposed the foreign policy consensus on the Iraq War Resolutions of 1991 and 2002. He opposed the Financial Services Modernization Act in 1999 and the Patriot Act in 2001. He opposed 1994’s Crime Bill, though in that instance, he provided procedural support critical to the law’s passage after some arm-twisting by President Clinton.

He declined to support austere welfare and bankruptcy laws in 1996 and 2005, respectively, and spoke with authority on the former legislation, taking to the House floor to tell his colleagues:

“The bill we are considering today is a bad bill. I will vote against it and I urge all people of conscience to vote against it… How can any person of faith, of conscience, vote for a bill that puts a million more kids into poverty?”

It’s incongruous that Lewis so readily lent his voice and image to the sociopolitical project of Third-Way, Clintonian centrism. The two sets of choices—to dissent on priority bipartisan projects, and to forcefully support and defend the Democratic architects of the bipartisan status quo—seem in irreconcilable opposition.

♦♦♦

What was the product of his cultivation of a ruling class that continually disappointed? Lewis struggled to convert accrued capital into consequential policy or material relief for his constituents—an onerous expectation to have of any member of our dismal Congress. His most significant achievement is perhaps a 2003 law establishing the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, a beautiful and appropriate legacy. He also authored a 2008 law appropriating resources for the investigation of civil rights-era racial violence.

I wonder if Lewis’s conception of political reality robbed him of what might have proved a more consequential capacity: the freedom to articulate an alternative, uncompromising vision of American government and society.

Lewis might have assailed the bounds of political possibility and lent credence to ideas that were righteous but forbidden, much as he had done with his own body and blood in his youth. He might have conferred his gravitas upon a vision of America transformed, even while broadly allying with the powerful moderates who ran his party—might have used his pulpit to remind us, gently if need be, of the radical, structurally subversive dimensions that his party had ironed out of the legacy of the Black freedom movement, out of the legacies of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others.

2016 brought a resourced, radically progressive challenge for the Democratic presidential nomination for the first time in decades. Lewis was an early and outspoken Hillary Clinton endorser, as he had been in 2008. But he didn’t just decline to add his venerated voice to the chorus calling for radical change: he worked actively to undermine Bernie Sanders’s proposed program. He adopted the language of austerity that stalks efforts at the expansion of social programs wherever they emerge.

In mid-February, as the contest shifted from Sanders’s New Hampshire route to Clinton’s “firewalls” in Nevada and the south, Lewis was asked specifically about Sanders’s proposals for universal programs like single-payer health care and cost-free public education. He said:

“I think it’s the wrong message to send to any group. There’s not anything free in America. We all have to pay for something. Education is not free. Health care is not free. Food is not free. Water is not free.”

The sheer pervasiveness of this sort of language provides unrivaled camouflage for its detachment from the social conditions which are an officeholder’s charge. Here Lewis, professing accord with a principle so lacking elucidation that it might equally be moral or fiscal, dismisses the suffering of millions.

The innovation by which the popular revolution, like the empire it fells, might discriminate in the disbursement of water, education, and healthcare is an extraordinary one indeed. At this juncture questions proliferate as reasonable answers evaporate, the well runs dry; eventually, there are none. To the aging icon persisting into the new disquiet, beyond the expiration of the most formidable legal protections afforded the Black southern voter, approaching final winters and summers undefended against the swift advance of new, but dreadfully familiar, seminal seasons—what was the meaning of the revolution?

This is the untold John Lewis story: the disconnect between the young firebrand and the old stalwart, the long retreat from radical solidarity to hedging incrementalism. At the end of his life, Lewis, like so many powerful people have for so long, told the masses that they did not quite deserve and could not have what they asked for, that they were wrong and they should wait.

To Barrington Martin, this wasn’t good enough. After all, he’s taken inspiration from the very same sources that Lewis once did. “A lot of the things in my platform, the blueprint is within Martin Luther King’s Economic Bill of Rights,” he says, “in his last book, called Where Do We Go From Here.

“John Lewis, the great congressman John Lewis, was a protege of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s, correct?” he asks me. “Would you agree to that?”

Yes, I say, that seems true.

“So how is it that when Dr. King had all of these political initiatives, all of these political ideologies, within his books, within his teachings, that throughout his entire congressional tenure, the great congressman did not use—not one of them? How is that possible?”


III. “What we are going to start saying now is ‘Black Power’”

That Congressman Lewis could not or would not demand radical alterations to the structure and character of our society in the form of transformative policy speaks volumes about the challenge implied, of entering and enduring in government with an anti-establishment vision of its role.

“At the time that John Lewis probably espoused the most aggressive or radical politics, he was not an elected official,” says Larry Hamm. “He was a SNCC activist. It’s a different world you’re in, being an activist and being an elected official.”

“Politics can easily corrupt the decision making,” Martin puts it. “You can take the most pure individual and make him have to play the game the way it’s been played—instead of him being able to be free in his decision making. And that’s just what it is. It’s really bigger than the great congressman himself.”

No doubt our institutions impress inevitably, and consequentially, upon those who participate in them. But of course this is just one way in which norms are invisibly imposed. Government also tactically excludes, preventing ideological transgressors from ever nearing the halls of power, let alone enshrining their agendas in law and seeing them manifest in society.

The aftermath of Lewis’s passing saw an outpouring of grief, and also a great deal of fanfare: there was a death to be mourned, but also a life to be celebrated, which various luminaries gathered to do. Eulogizing Lewis, Bill Clinton invoked Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture, who succeeded Lewis as chairman of the SNCC and was among the most prominent progenitors and emissaries of Black Power:

“[Lewis] lost the leadership of SNCC to Stokely Carmichael because it was a pretty good job for a guy that young and come from Troy, Alabama. It must have been painful to lose, but he showed as a young man there’s some things that you just cannot do to hang on to a position… And I say there were two or three years there, where the movement went a little too far towards Stokely, but in the end, John Lewis prevailed.”

It made odd funeral fare. President Clinton sets Lewis’s memory to work assailing a dissident who was, though not Lewis’s ideological compatriot in every way, his comrade and friend. And he makes an unusually crude attack on counter-hegemonic political ideas and the people who hold them.

♦♦♦

Stokely Carmichael was born in Trinidad and lived there until the age of eleven. He moved with his family to New York and attended Bronx Science High School before enrolling at Howard University. Like Lewis, he became involved with the non-violent protest movement and with the SNCC. He too participated in the Freedom Rides of 1961, spending, along with Lewis, over a month in Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi.

He was with Lewis in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer, 1964, as thousands of young organizers poured into the state to start libraries and youth programs, hold mock elections, and attempt to register voters. And the climax to that famous summer provides a point of entry into the divergence between the two men, and likewise between civil disobedience and Black Power.

Following persistent and barbarous retaliations on their registration efforts, the SNCC and other organizers became determined to help Mississippians exercise their political rights by alternative means. They founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), a shadow organization to the Dixiecrat state party, and gradually built a parallel party infrastructure. In August, the MFDP elected a slate of 68 delegates, who headed to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. As rightful representatives of the disenfranchised—and of a party carefully observing both relevant law and the DNC delegate selection rules, unlike the segregationist Democrats—they demanded to be seated.

The delegation arrived with hopes high, having secured support from a number of state parties and with the energy of the liberal wing of the national party behind them. But, attempting to appease the Dixiecrat south, President Johnson went to extreme lengths to prevent the MFDP from being recognized, wielding carrots and sticks to induce otherwise sympathetic actors to stymie them—all the way from Senator Hubert Humphrey, who was promised the vice presidency, on down to scores of rank-and-file officials who received undisguised threats to their jobs.

A protracted procedural and public relations battle ensued. As the opening of the convention neared, Johnson approved a facile compromise: two non-voting seats and an assurance of future operational reforms. The Freedom delegation voted unanimously to decline the offer.

In the end, the Mississippi Dixiecrats, themselves consumed by grievances arising from the pace of racial progress, rejected their invitation to the convention and left Atlantic City. MFDP members snuck into the proceedings on multiple nights, occupying the conspicuous space that was steadfastly denied them, then abdicated by the segregationists they sought rightfully to replace. They were repeatedly removed.

“As far as I’m concerned,” John Lewis wrote in his 1998 memoir, “this was the turning point of the civil rights movement.” He continued:

“Until then, despite every setback and disappointment and obstacle we had faced over the years, the belief still prevailed that the system would work, the system would listen, the system would respond. Now, for the first time, we had made our way to the very center of the system. We had played by the rules, done everything we were supposed to do, had played the game exactly as required, had arrived at the doorstep and found the door slammed in our face.”

Lewis, remarkably, kept the faith after the Democratic Convention of 1964. He refused to give up on the Democratic Party, on his government, or on the white establishment.

Not everyone felt as he did. Stokely Carmichael was tiring, dissatisfied with the movement’s results and, increasingly, with its approach. A year later, after John Lewis was beaten back on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Carmichael was among the thousands who proceeded to undertake the intended march from Selma to Montgomery. But he didn’t finish it—he stopped midway in Lowndes, a county that was 80% Black but had a single registered Black voter. Along with locals and a few other SNCC activists, Carmichael stayed to organize and register the Black population—not for a mock election or a parallel delegation, but to build something rarer and more radical: an operational Black political party. The Lowndes County Freedom Organization was born, and eventually it flourished, aided first by defiant registration efforts and later by enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. As its emblem, the party chose a black panther.

Another year later, Carmichael replaced Lewis as chair of SNCC. Just a month after that—back in Mississippi, following the shooting of James Meredith and brutal police crackdown on the protests that ensued—Carmichael first said the words “Black Power.” Specifically, he said:

“This is the 27th time I have been arrested and I ain’t going to jail no more!…We been saying ‘Freedom’ for six years and we ain’t got nothing. What we are going to start saying now is ‘Black Power!”’

And with that, tensions long simmering in the broad, diverse struggle for Black liberation burst to the fore.

♦♦♦

Whites who had supported the movement for civil rights, who were sympathetic to the plight of the stoic practitioners of civil disobedience, feared this new and militant current of Black organization and Black thought. And so did many Black people, including Black leaders—or at the very least, they feared its reception by a prickly white majority. Martin Luther King Jr., though he empathized with those adopting the slogan, fretted over its use and rejected much of its ideological thrust. So did John Lewis, who by his own account refused to ever say the words. When the SNCC embraced Black Power, he said, “it was time for me to go.”

According to Carmichael, Black Power meant “a call for Black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for Black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations.” It meant sovereign Black institutions—of Black people, for Black people, controlled by Black people—acting without reservation to cultivate all of the wealth and entitlement on explicit offer in the white American dream. A humanitarian aspiration against brutal oppression, it meant the antithesis of White Power, no matter how many people took it to mean something analogous.

It entailed, too, in inevitable practice, the conclusion that violence need not be endured without response—which seemed to shock much of white America, commonsense though it was. The violence which plagued Black Power groups was (and is) used to discredit those organizations, despite the profound persecution from which the movement sprung, and despite the fact that such violence was largely stoked or outright initiated, perpetrated, by the government.

As it happens, Carmichael himself was never involved in any of that oft-cited violence—but still, violence chased him from this country, or rather, the state wittingly expelled Stokely Carmichael from its borders.

By the time Carmichael became a concern, the federal government had erected a sizable bureaucracy solely to conduct its efforts against dissidents and radicals. The FBI’s “Counter Intelligence Programs,” or “COINTELPROs,” unfolded in complete secrecy from the withering of McCarthyism (or earlier) until a March night in 1971, when a small cadre of activist thieves broke into FBI offices and stole the documents that revealed the operations and their intentions. Wherever Black people organized, the FBI was there to tip the scales in favor of Jim Crow and the white establishment: it was monitoring the Freedom Rides in 1961, tracking plots against the riders without intervening to protect them; in 1964, it assigned thirty agents to spy on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. From the beginning, the state’s intentions were enshrined plainly in the documents these programs produced: the discrediting of Black leaders and prevention of Black organization.

In the latter half of the 1960s, the FBI beat back at Black Power with unprecedented violence and vengeance. As Black nationalists were murdered indiscriminately by federal and local law enforcement, Stokely Carmichael became a priority target. In a 1968 memo, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover himself identified Carmichael as the likeliest among several “Black Messiahs” with the potential to unify Black people in “a true black revolution.” The FBI “bad-jacketed” him extensively, relying on informants and undercover agents to plant falsified documents portraying him as an agent of the CIA to his associates in Black organizations.

Carmichael had led the SNCC, inspired the Black Panthers, and attempted to unify the two organizations—but by late 1968, due in large part to tensions stirred by the FBI’s tactics, he had been cleaved from good standing with both. On September 4th of that year, agents phoned Carmichael’s mother and falsely claimed that her son was the object of a Panther hit. He fled the country and lived in Guinea, with rare exception, for the remaining three decades of his life.

♦♦♦

Clinton intended to separate Carmichael and Lewis by moral character, but he failed at this distinction. If the two are broadly distinguished by anything, it is political audacity, by their ideological reactions to violence.

There’s a better story about what Stokely Carmichael gave to America, a country which never allowed him much of anything. First he gave his body and blood, protesting and organizing throughout the wrathful south to bring Jim Crow to its knees, much as John Lewis did.

Then he gave Black Americans his assessment of their shared predicament and considered philosophy for their liberation. In urging a rejection of reliance on existing institutions, and thus the pursuit of economic, social, and political empowerment through the creation of Black organizations, he did ideological and political work foundational to the ongoing Black freedom struggle.

Nor was Black Power the only term that Carmichael popularized. He introduced, too, the now-ubiquitous notion of “institutional racism” to describe racial injustice perpetrated by (and intrinsic to) whole systems. He wrote thoughtfully on poverty, white supremacy, and imperialism; his understanding of race and of America undergirds our understanding of those notions today, as well as so much of today’s activism.

The contrast between Lewis, who maintained faith in the Democratic Party and white institutions and sought to work with and within government as time progressed, and Carmichael, who became disillusioned with the same, gravitated towards Black nationalism, and was chased from his country by his government, is telling, and doubly sad.

Both were heroes, veterans of the same registration drives, jailings, and beatings. One became a congressman, the other an expatriate. Lewis lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda; as he received this singular institutional honor, Carmichael was swiped at by no less than a former president. The acclamation of one and denigration of the other shared a breath, and in fact, the former was predicated on the latter.

There is, no doubt, a lesson here about what sort of radicalism may win respect—grudgingly at first—and what sort may always meet with condemnation and persecution, no matter its inherent righteousness.


IV. Good Trouble

In May of last year, George Floyd was murdered, and John Lewis was dying. But he made his way out into the streets of D.C., quietly, to appraise an artifact of the continuing struggle for racial justice: the bulbous yellow letters proclaiming Black Lives Matter in a northwest enclave of Lafayette Square Park now known as Black Lives Matter Plaza.

He lingered, slowly attracting notice. His visit became a reception as he spoke with onlookers and posed in photos, as was always his custom.

There is power in John Lewis’s image. And in the very last stage of his life, he gave encouragement to those following in his footsteps. “Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America,” he wrote in his final message, published in the New York Times after his death. “Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe.”

But John Lewis, the man who never said Black Power, likewise never said “defund the police.” He leaves no record of an opinion on the matter, but the best available accounts suggest he was probably exceedingly wary of the idea, if not outright opposed to it—to the singleminded demand of a muscular activist base coalescing in new solidarity and motion, marching for justice as he once marched.

Last autumn, as I contemplated the top of my ballot, I thought a great deal about this very dissonance, about the timidity America coerces and cajoles into those it vests with power, about the inability of American government to represent its citizens. I thought about this as 2020 turned to 2021 and the growing bloc of House progressives ratified a candidate for Speaker who refused nearly all of their demands.

“The Democratic Party is not a radical party,” says Larry Hamm—who is, by his own description, a Democrat and a revolutionary. “We don’t have a tradition of a labor party or a progressive party. We haven’t had the institutional frameworks that can support radical and progressive elected officials.”

Still, today, the products of dissident and social movements, seeking nearly any office, must forge delicate unions with this party, which may at times elevate their voices or imbue them with institutional authority, but will remain dependably hostile to the priorities they hope to represent.

“[Lewis] still was able to speak out on issues that affect the Black community,” Hamm says. But that’s no replacement for seeing the community’s interests manifest in the party’s agenda. “That’s one of the ways the party keeps power. They’ve managed to master this art of having liberal rhetoric but ending up supporting policies that are not liberal, that are not radical, that are in fact status quo— and some of them are even very conservative.”

And in the end, power takes its toll. Like radicals before and since, Lewis acceded to his party’s conception of political reality and relinquished the political demands of his indefatigable youth. He leaves a legacy of radical protest, but no radical political blueprint.

Like his life, his death produced contradictions that cannot be reconciled simply by the beneficence of his memory. At his funeral, for example, there was joyful celebration of his legacy and for his example of selflessness and courage, but also the use of the occasion for the denigration of his comrade and friend.

And there was the juxtaposition of the ex-radical, made inert by time, with the vibrance and desperation of the present moment as the streets filled with the heirs to his struggle—many wondering what could ever change a society that had demonstrated throughout his lifetime such a remarkable resilience to reform, wondering exactly what sort of boldness it will take.♦

 

 


Abraham Ratner is a tutor, organizer, musician, and writer with bylines in AlterNet and Salon.