John Lewis spoke once again today in Washington. He is the last surviving speaker from 50 years ago, and perhaps the most radical then and now. Fifty years ago he was the newly elected president of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee–the folks who gave us the Freedom Rides that kickstarted the civil rights movement in 1961. Lewis prepared a speech even stronger than the one he gave (you can search “john lewis 1963 speech text changes student activism” to see the two versions), but what he did say was a sharp rebuke to the Kennedy administration’s wavering on basic human rights.
Lewis said then: “In its present form this (civil rights) bill will not protect the citizens of Danville, Virginia, who must live in constant fear of a police state….’One man, one vote is the African cry. It is ours, too. It must be ours. We must have legislation that will protect the Mississippi sharecropper who is put off his farm because he dares to register to vote. We need a bill that will provide for the homeless and starving people of this nation….My friends, let us not forget that we are involved in a serious revolution. By and large, American politics is dominated by politicians who build their careers on immoral compromise and ally themselves with open forms of political, economic, and social exploitation. There are exceptions, of course. We salute those. But what political leader can stand up and say, ‘My party is the party of principles?’ For the party of Kennedy is also the party of Eastland (segregationist Democratic Senator from Mississippi). The party of Javits (pro-civil rights New York Republican Senator) is also the party of Goldwater (who had voted consistently against civil rights bills). Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington? … To those who have said, ‘be patient and wait,’ we have long said that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now. We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tIred of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler ‘be patient?’ How long can we be patient? We want our freedom, and we want it now! … I appeal to all of you to get in this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village, and every hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete…. They’re talking about slow down and stop. We will not stop. All of the forces of Eastland, Barnett, Wallace, and Thurmond will not stop this revolution. If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South… but we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity we have shown here today. By the forces of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of God and democracy. We must say to you ‘Wake up America! Wake up!’ For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.”
I think that sums up militant nonviolence as well as any speech of the whole civil rights movement. The text he had prepared to give, but revised out of respect for (and under pressure from) his elders in the movement expresses militant nonviolence even more militantly.
The Mississippi newspapers of the day, according to Raymond Arsenault’s book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, “routinely referred to the Freedom Riders as ‘crackpots,’ ‘mixers,’ ‘mix riders,’ ‘friction riders,’ or ‘freedom raiders” (p. 344). John Lewis could never be accused of being an outside raider or agitator or carpetbagger–he grew up on a tenant farm near the little town of Troy, Alabama. But perhaps he would not mind being called a friction rider. As Thoreau wrote in Resistance to Civil Government, if an “injustice is part of the necessary friction of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth,–certainly the machine will wear out….but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”
Today John Lewis gave a speech on the National Mall and said that “Martin Luther King taught us the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. He taught us to have the power to forgive, the capacity to be reconciled. He taught us to stand up, to speak up, to speak out, to find a way to get in the way.” And he said we need to “continue to push” until “we are all living in the same house–not just the American house, but the world house.” (Lewis echoed there the title of the last chapter of King’s 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos Or Community?). John Lewis has been The Honorable Congressman for decades now, but he has also kept on being a freedom, and may I say friction, rider.