I can’t imagine John Lewis liked the America he left behind Friday. Yeah, of course, he had seen progress since the day he stood before a crowd of about 250,000 and spoke these words:
“How long can we be patient? We want our freedom, and we want it now.”
Lewis, who died at 80, could have uttered those same words in 2020. For all the progress America has made, it’s failed to deliver what Lewis, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins, longtime activist Daisy Lee Bates, and actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee demanded on that August day in 1963.
Missing from the list of speechmakers was Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, whose condemnation of sanctified Blacks, progressive whites and the nonviolence movement proved too radical.
In his stead, Lewis, a 23-year-old leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, might have been the most militant of these speakers. He cried for freedom “now” – 57 years ago.
So when will “now” come?
Only the most madcap optimist would have believed freedom for Black folks would come shortly after the thousands who gathered near the Lincoln Memorial dispersed.
The march was, as Randolph rightly called it, a “first wave.” It should have been a tsunami.
For had it been, Lewis might have died in a world where he did taste freedom – the same rights to fail, to dream absurd dreams, to prosper just as white Americans do.
He had to die knowing that was not the case. All he needed to remind him of that fact was to look at the peaceful — and violent — protests that sprung up after Minneapolis cops killed George Floyd, an unarmed Black man.
The business of freeing Blacks remains finished, although Lewis, a veteran congressman, might have seen the finish line as closer than others did.
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be very pleased and very proud of seeing so many people – hundreds, thousands, millions – engage in nonviolent protests all over American but around the world,” Lewis said in a TV interview before his death. “He’s looking down, and he’s saying to each and every one of us, ‘Keep it up, and never give up, never give in, but to keep the faith and to keep your eyes on the prize.’ ”
Keep your eyes on the prize?
Those words seem like fine motivation for a fighter who’s chasing a title. But 2020 must be more than chasing titles, even for freedom fighters like John Lewis.
After all, aren’t gyms in politics plastered with soiled, battered promises?
Lewis was the living answer to that question. For if politics were not, if this America were the land it was supposed to be, he might have been able take off his Everlast gloves and retire from the political ring.
He was unable to. He had to continue to throw punches decades into the game.
I wish Lewis hadn’t had to, because it would have meant his brethren were in a better place than they are.
I hate to raise a fuss with a Civil Rights fighter, but I say Lewis is wrong about King. The reverend would dislike this America, which leans on the same protests he and Lewis used to shake Americans from their malaise all those years ago.