In American Lives: John Lewis, Moral Force for Nonviolence, how was Lewis's commitment to nonviolence tested in his life?
The essay titled John Lewis: A Moral Force for Nonviolence, describes in brief the now-congressman’s experiences as an early and active leader of the movement to end segregation. The essay briefly references the episodes of violence, brutal violence, to which Lewis was subjected. Similar and more detailed information is available in more extensive biographies of Lewis. The essay in question includes the following passage regarding Lewis’s continued commitment to the path of nonviolence even after experiencing numerous beatings, including one at the hands of state police that fractured his skull:
“During this time, Lewis continued to serve as chairman of SNCC. However, many members now wanted a more radical approach to the struggle for rights. In 1966, one of these radicals was elected chairman, defeating Lewis. A few months later, Lewis resigned from the organization he had helped found and had led for three years. In the next few years, Lewis continued his civil rights work in various organizations.”
All this essay tells us is that Lewis remained committed to nonviolence; it doesn’t, however, tell us why. It doesn’t explain what motivated this individual to stay the course when so many others, exhausted by the physical brutality to which they were routinely subjected, chose a different path. For that, one must consult Lewis’ memoir that period, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. After innumerable physical assaults inflicted at the hands of racist whites, some among Lewis’s civil rights movement were more inclined to meet violence with violence – an understandable response. As Lewis described in his memoir, the debate became more intense as the movement picked up steam:
“Our campaign had grown to include riders who came with all their heart and soul and courage to put their bodies on the line for the cause of racial and human justice, but who were not necessarily familiar with nor committed to the way of nonviolence. This caused some tension among us . . .”
Similarly, later and, again, while sitting in jail for their peaceful pro-civil rights activities, the schism between the more militant and the more peaceable flared anew:
“Neither (Stokely) Carmichael nor (Fred) Leonard had much interest in Ghandi or the principles of nonviolence or even the Bible . . .Stokely and Leonard were both totally committed to our cause, but didn’t necessarily agree with us on tactics.”
Lewis, however, was raised a Southern Baptist and was educated at the American Baptist Theological Seminary and retained his deeply religious roots, which strongly influenced his perspectives on political action. Lewis, himself, states why he remain committed to nonviolence in the face of so much brutality, and his comments explain the limits of that passivity. Discussing the approaching March on Washington and the speech he would give on the same stage at Martin Luther King, Lewis describes his philosophy as follows:
“My words needed to be forceful – I knew that. I didn’t want to be part of a parade. I wanted to see discipline and organization on this day, but I wanted it to have an air of militancy as well, even some disruption if necessary – disciplined disruption. I have never stopped believing in the power of creative disruption. I have always believed in aggressive nonviolence. I’ve always believed in putting some sting into it. I wanted this march to have some sting.” [Emphasis in original]
Lewis convictions were strong enough to survive the violence to which he and others were subjected. He believed firmly in the power of conviction, and held fast to his believes. That he would live to see King and both Kennedys assassinated and continue on this vein was the sign of a remarkable individual.