Appreciation: John Lewis

Congressman John Lewis, during a visit to East Chop in Oak Bluffs in 2014, speaks with Al Christian, Dr. David Grant, and Dr. Lynn McKinley-Grant. Lewis was on the Island for a fundraiser hosted by Christian.

As people all over the world are remembering Congressman John Lewis, nowhere is the memory of him greater than on the Vineyard, which he visited several times over the years. And like so many of us, he fell in love with our Island paradise, and all who got to know him fell in love with him. One of those was Michaele Christian, who gave a fundraiser for him in 2014.

Echoing so many who met him when he visited over the years, she recalled, “I met a man with a very unpretentious, down-to-earth, and engaging manner who quickly put people at ease, and seemed to genuinely enjoy their company and appreciate their attention.”

Christian also remembered that after the formal part of the event was over, John lingered for a while, talking with her family and a few close friends. At some point, she recalled, he eased out onto her deck and spent what was probably some rare but much-needed quiet time, “gazing out over the ocean at twilight and enjoying the most amazing massive red moonrise.”

There were other times when there was no agenda, other than sharing time with friends, like the visiting Chicago family of the Rev. Otis Moss III, who, after the minister’s official preaching duties one Sunday at Union Chapel, enjoyed the Vineyard like the rest of us. But being the man he was, as Moss’s wife Monica recalled, “John took time to share lessons of history and hope through the unwavering lens of his faith in God and humanity. His comic book series, ‘March,’ brought light and life to the stories of the civil rights movement, and allowed our children a chance encounter with a ‘real-life’ hero on Circuit Ave.”

Being only two years younger than John Lewis, even now I well remember his early years, when he took the first blow for freedom when he stepped off a bus during an effort to test the Supreme Court’s ruling against segregation on interstate bus routes and toilets. It was a case that came to be known as the Boynton decision, bearing the name of the case of Bruce Boynton, a black college student discriminated against on an interstate bus route. 

There was no social media and only three television networks, none with any people of color. But that seminal moment in our history lit up the country and the world to the challenges America faced on the road to freedom and justice for all, regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin. And before that journey began, John and a racially mixed group of 13 blacks and whites signed their wills. As John wrote: “We were prepared to die. Some of us signed letters and wills. We didn’t know if we’d return.” 

When the group arrived in Rock Hill, S.C., they encountered their first violent resistance. As I wrote in “To the Mountaintop,” the book I did for younger readers whose parents weren’t even born then: “A group of white toughs who frequented the bus station’s pinball machines were not waiting on the Freedom Riders, but when John Lewis stepped off the Greyhound bus and attempted to enter through the white entrance, one of the whites directed him to the colored entrance. Lewis responded, ‘I have a right to go in there on the grounds of the Supreme Court decision in the Boynton case.’”

One of the white youths spat out a profanity, and when Lewis ignored it and started in through the door, a young white man punched him in the mouth, thus giving Lewis the dubious (but dare I say today honorable) distinction of taking the first blow to a Freedom Rider. 

“When other attackers proceeded to beat Lewis, Albert Bigelow, a white Freedom Rider, stepped in between them and was beaten to the ground. So was Genevieve Hughes, a female Freedom Rider. But beaten, bruised, and bleeding, they all got up and refused to press charges against their attackers.” 

That night, the group spent the night at Friendship Junior College, and the next day continued on their journey, stopping only once, and briefly, in Athens, Ga. What is most significant about that moment to me is that a few blocks from where they stopped, I sat alone in my dormitory, segregated on the first floor, away from all the other female students on the second floor, University of Georgia’s way of resisting the law they couldn’t legally resist to desegregate. But while I didn’t know about the Freedom Riders’ stop at that time, I did know about those who were engaged, as they were only 73 miles away in Atlanta, my hometown. On weekends, I used to travel there to practice what would ultimately become my lifelong profession as I helped out on the Atlanta Inquirer, a small newspaper started to accurately cover the Atlanta student movement, which the all-white newspaper in the city didn’t and which the black newspaper didn’t fully due to constraints by its white advertisers. One of two editors on the Inquirer was Julian Bond, a local student from the all-black Morehouse College, and an English professor, M. Carl Holman, from the all-black Clark College. Julian divided his time between getting out the paper and working with the students, including helping write their manifesto, called “The Committee on Appeal for Human Rights.” They swore to go to jail without bail until their demands were met. And some did, in fact, go to jail, along with Martin Luther King Jr., who had joined them. 

And that is where the passing of John Lewis took me to. For while Hamilton Holmes, the other black student who joined in the successful suit, and I were alone on the UGA campus, part of our ability to survive that lonely and sometimes challenging journey was the example of people like John Lewis and Julian Bond, and so many others who were confronting violence daily and being the horrific victims of it — all to make America live up to its promise to all of its people and to understand its potential greatness. And while these protests were aimed at achieving equality for people who looked like me — darker or lighter — and were led by people who were my age and even younger, they were joined by people of all races, creeds, and colors who were on board with the ultimate goal — freedom for ALL, because no one of any color could be truly free if anyone had a boot on the neck of anyone else, which is what segregation and unequal justice did and does. 

Which brings me back to John Lewis and his moral crusade that continued until he became our latest ancestor last week, and why and how we all have an obligation to ensure his life and now his death was not in vain. And how do we do that, not least in a nation so divided that we can’t even agree on how to protect ourselves and each other from this latest pandemic, as it coincides with our ongoing pandemic — the still unfulfilled dream of John Lewis of equal justice for all in every aspect of American life?

And I believe whether we do it currently as dictated by the latest pandemic — virtually — or socially distanced, we need to figure out how to share our history, especially with our young, not least because there is evidence that some 85 percent of our schools are not teaching ALL our history. To that end, I recently interviewed someone with a solution on my “Race Matters” series, looking at solutions to racism. She is Margaret Hagerman, an author who, based on her up-close and personal research, has ideas about how to do that. She told me, “I think that the most important thing that white parents can do is embrace the idea that all children are worthy of their consideration, and that we should care about our community. We should think about the collective good. We should focus on how we can help everyone, rather than just focusing on our own child.”

And returning to my own history, even when our segregated schools had to depend on the white officials who were in control, and led to our schools getting the hand-me-down textbooks from the white schools, often with pages missing … When our people couldn’t give us first-class citizenship, they gave us a first-class sense of ourselves. And I would say that today, our villages have often been resegregated, if they were ever truly integrated, and also separated and often denied the kind of unity that helped us back in the day to be outfitted with survival armor. Not all, to be sure, for there are so many trying to hold on to that important message. 

And that takes me back to Margaret Hagerman, who went on to say, “It’s important that people who are in leadership positions and in positions of authority take the realities of racism, the legacy of racism, the data and the facts that we have about racism, seriously, and include those in not only what they say, but also what they do, in terms of their policies and how they move forward as a leader.”

Now, in this current moment of twin pandemics — COVID-19 and injustice — I return to John Lewis and his now immortal words, most recently remembered by his civil rights colleague Andrew Young, and those were that we need to learn to “disagree without being disagreeable.”

With my history and John’s in my head and heart, I agree. 


Charlayne Hunter-Gault is an author, journalist, and lecturer. A version of this tribute first appeared in the Sarasota Herald Tribune.