As a horse-drawn caisson carried the body of beloved Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis (D-GA) over the Edmund Pettus Bridge for one last crossing before being laid to rest, the scene brought to mind the stark contrast between John Lewis and our president, Donald Trump. It also underlined the fact that Trump is working to undo all that John Lewis stood for and worked for, for most of his life and all of his career.
John Lewis, the last surviving member of the “Big Six,” who led and organized the 1963 March on Washington, was a key leader in the civil rights movement that worked to end racial segregation in the U.S. Lewis led the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, during which he and other civil rights demonstrators suffered brutal beatings by Alabama state troopers. Lewis suffered a fractured skull.
That event, referred to as “Bloody Sunday,” was a turning point in the civil rights movement.
“We were beaten. We were tear-gassed. I thought I was going to die on this bridge. But somehow and some way, God almighty helped me here,” Lewis said of that day as he stood again on the bridge, years later. “We must go out and vote like we never, ever voted before.”
On Sunday, when the caisson carrying Lewis’ body completed its journey across the bridge, Alabama state troopers saluted Lewis.
“It is poetic justice that this time Alabama state troopers will see John to his safety,” Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.) said.
Across the country, in Portland, Oregon, however, unidentifiable federal law enforcement agents, sent by Trump, and uninvited by local leaders, were disbursing “law and order” in the form of teargas, violence, and the rounding up of protesters into unmarked cars, making no distinction between peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrators and violent anarchists. Trump has plans to do the same in “Democrat-led” cities across the country, even against the will of local officials, claiming that the cities’ Democratic leaders aren’t doing their jobs.
“We were beaten. We were tear-gassed. “
Earlier this summer, on June 1, 2020, it must have been heartbreaking for John Lewis to witness Trump’s chest-beating deployment of military troops using teargas, rubber bullets, and violent force to shut down anti-racism demonstrators as they protested peacefully in front of the White House. The demonstrators were there to protest the systemic racism and police brutality that led to the recent death of African American George Floyd and, over the years, many other people of color…a phenomenon still happening in 2020—55 years after Lewis and other civil rights leaders were beaten for peacefully protesting.
It was the start of the next racist chapter of Trump’s aggressive dog-whistle posturing disguised as “law and order.” Drawing on the racist resentment and xenophobia of his base that got him elected in 2016, Trump’s message conflates the peaceful anti-racist protests with violence, vandalism, and anarchy, and promises to use Homeland Security special forces to squelch them.
“We must go out and vote like we never, ever voted before.”
In the wake of Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon B. Johnson enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting. Two days after it was first introduced in Congress, civil rights leaders led a march of 25,000 people from Selma to Montgomery, this time under the protection of federal troops.
In 2020, in addition to using federal troops to forcibly squelch anti-racist demonstrations, Donald Trump is doing what he can to prevent voters from casting their ballots in the 2020 election. His most blatant tactic of late is to try to stop voting by mail. In his continued efforts to turn Americans against mail-in voting, he has falsely claimed numerous times that mail-in voting leads to widespread voter fraud.
Preventing mail-in voting will most impact voters of color, who have always had to contend with voter disenfranchisement. Trump knows that making it easer and safer for them, and others, to vote during the pandemic crisis will hurt him in the election, because the ability to vote by mail will increase voter turnout. He also knows that large numbers of black voters, including low-income black voters who otherwise would not be able to easily get to polling places to vote, or who may not have access to photo IDs where they are required, are Democrats.
“…Somehow and some way, God almighty helped me here”
When Lewis talked about his Christian faith, we could believe him. Lewis graduated from the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee and was an ordained Baptist minister. His faith was what motivated him to work for racial equality, and he looked to his faith for sustenance. Faith was powerful and real for John Lewis.
“In my estimation, the civil rights movement was a religious phenomenon,” Lewis said in 2004. “When we’d go out to sit in or go out to march, I felt, and I really believe, there was a force in front of us and a force behind us, ’cause sometimes you didn’t know what to do. You didn’t know what to say, you didn’t know how you were going to make it through the day or through the night. But somehow and some way, you believed – you had faith – that it all was going to be all right.”
Contrast that with Donald Trump’s equation of “faith” to partisan politics. Trump has perceived that the gun-wielding white evangelical Christians who make up much of his base also have racist and xenophobic tendencies, even if they don’t own up to them. They may say they don’t support violence against African Americans, for example, but when Trump presents African Americans as “violent thugs who might hurt their wives and children,” they can suddenly justify police brutality (“Floyd had a criminal record”) and they can get behind sending Homeland Security Agents to cities (especially the ones that are Democrat-led) where there are racial tensions because they are “dangerous and violent.”
For his base, all Trump needs to do to be seen as a man of faith is stand in front of a vandalized church, as he did following his June 1 crackdown on peaceful protesters, and wield a Bible. He doesn’t have to know what it says inside, and he doesn’t even have to hold it right-side-up, for his base to proclaim him a “Warrior for God.”
Donald Trump constantly pushes his base’s buttons labeled “Black and Brown People are Bad and Dangerous,” and “The Bible,” in hopes that they will not ask him for substance. When he throws in the word “liberty,” it’s understood that he’s only referring to the personal liberties of his base.
John Lewis didn’t see Donald Trump as a legitimate president. He condemned Donald Trump’s racism as “shameful.”
“I know racism when I see it,” said Lewis in a speech condemning Trump’s racist tweets about four Congresswomen of color. “I know racism when I feel it. And at the highest level of government, there’s no room for racism. It sows the seeds of violence and destroys the hopes and dreams of people. The world is watching. They are shocked and dismayed because it seems we have lost our way as a nation, as a proud and great people.”
Trump responded by denigrating Lewis’ majority Black Georgia district as “crime infested” and “falling apart.”
In 2017, Lewis declined to speak at the opening of Mississippi civil rights and history museums because Donald Trump would be in attendance. Lewis said that Trump’s “hurtful policies are an insult to the people portrayed in this civil rights museum.”
John Lewis’ was an honorable life well-lived in service to others and to his country. He fought on behalf of the disenfranchised, the unfortunate, and the underrepresented in our society.
Donald Trumps’ is a life devoid of honor, lived in service to himself, and to his re-election. He fights to vilify those in whom John Lewis and others in the civil rights movement invested their lives and careers.
“As a nation and as a people we need to go forward and not backward.” (John Lewis)
This year, 2020, to ensure that we silence the awful din of divisiveness and hate, we must all vote like we never, ever voted before.
John Lewis: Body of civil rights leader carried across Selma bridge on his final journey | The Independent [2020-07-26]
Bloody Sunday | Rep. John Lewis remembers the fateful day in Selma
AJC Atlanta Journal-Constitution [2020-07-18]