The arc of the Black protest tradition: John Lewis and BLM

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The late Congressman John Lewis was the last living speaker at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 57 years ago. It is bittersweet that he died a month and a half before today’s planned Black Lives Matter (BLM) march. His message remains as relevant now; the BLM and the civil rights movements form part of the enduring arc of the Black protest tradition in the United States. At the core of this tradition are the demand for racial justice, the primacy of confronting racial injustice, and mobilizing a multiracial coalition to effect change.

On that sweltering day in 1963, Lewis was early in the line-up for the program, but Martin Luther King, Jr, the founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Lewis’s mentor, was the featured speaker later in the day. Introduced by A. Philip Randolph as the “moral leader of our nation,” King had led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the 1950s and was then engaged in desegregating Birmingham, Ala., in the face of obstinate and violent opposition. Before the Lincoln Memorial and 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, King — only 36 — delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In articulating an inspirational vision of the movement, King grounded his dream of a harmonious multiracial society in a moral revolution, one in which the country lived up to its creed that “all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights.”

To the thousands of people around the Reflecting Pool and watching on television, John Lewis was not as well-known as King. There was no mistaking his message. Where King inspired with his dream for the United States, Lewis jumped-started the day’s program by calling on Americans to “wake up” to a social revolution unfolding in the South and sweeping the country. It was a revolution against white supremacy, one that was to complete the revolution of 1776. As Lewis reminded the audience, this system deprived Black people of the full proceeds of their labor while denying them their right to vote through a combination of state-sponsored violence and acts of racist terrorism.

Lewis defiantly rejected the advice to “be patient and wait,” and instead demanded that “we want our freedom and we want it now.” In referring to the Kennedy administration’s civil rights bill then before Congress, Lewis deemed it as incomplete without protections for protesters in the South and the right to vote. Nor did he mince his words about the culpability of Democratic and Republican politicians who compromised and aligned themselves with interests that exploited Black people to preserve the status quo.

In calling on Americans to join the civil rights revolution, Lewis let the audience know that there was nothing stopping the movement. Activists had demonstrated they were prepared to be beaten, go to jail and even die to bring about change. Indeed, he warned of even greater confrontation: “We will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South, through the streets of Jacksonville, the streets of Danville, the streets of Cambridge, and the streets of Birmingham. We will march with the spirit of love and dignity that we have shown here today.”

The March on Washington proved to be a turning point for the movement. Of course, the revolution that Lewis helped to lead did not end with the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964), Voting Rights Act (1965), and the Fair Housing Act (1968). These acts neither protected George Floyd in Minneapolis, or the lengthy list of Black men and women before and after his death who were killed in police custody or at the hands of racist vigilantes. 

The struggle for racial justice continues, and so does the imperative to confront anti-Blackness. If you listen carefully today, you will hear the voice of John Lewis chanting the words, “Black lives matter.”

Douglas M. Haynes, Ph.D., is vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion at the University of California, Irvine. He also is head of the Office of Inclusive Excellence and chief diversity officer at UCI and its medical center.

Tags Black Lives Matter Civil rights movement John Lewis March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom Martin Luther King Jr. racial justice protests

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