If Donald Trump ever planned, as he continually promised, to act “presidential,” this should have been the week. Yet even as grandstands went up along the inaugural parade route, Trump took to Twitter like a Kardashian to attack Rep. John Lewis (D-GA). Targeting the only surviving March on Washington speaker on the MLK holiday weekend, Trump made clear once more how little he knows about the America he has been elected to serve and the historical moment in which he takes office. By attacking the “Conscience of the Congress,” Trump has served notice to all people of conscience that the time to prepare for moral resistance is now.
As a student at American Baptist Theological Seminary, John Lewis helped organize the Nashville sit-ins and create the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which he would later chair. In 1961, he and a dozen others, seven white and six black, boarded a bus in Washington D.C. and set out to cross the Deep South in violation of the segregation laws, which had been ruled unconstitutional in 1944. The federal government at that point was not meaningfully committed to racial equality. White mobs set the bus on fire and brutally beat Lewis and others in Alabama; some never recovered. The international spectacle of a flaming bus on front pages from Detroit to Dakar forced the Kennedy administration to intervene. But the state of Mississippi arrested the Freedom Riders, and Lewis spent forty days in the notorious Parchman Farm penitentiary. Lewis risked his life and gave his blood and his liberty for the rule of law.
Arrested 24 times time in the struggle to save American democracy from its worst flaws, John Lewis bears in his body the marks of America’s struggle for multi-ethnic democracy. During a 1965 voting rights campaign, he and Hosea Williams led 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on “Bloody Sunday” in Selma. Alabama state troopers and mounted vigilantes with whips, bats and chains charged the march, cracking Lewis’s skull and badly injuring dozens of nonviolent demonstrators. Lewis escaped and spoke to the TV cameras, imploring President Lyndon Johnson to protect the rights of black citizens to vote, before he was hospitalized.
Elected to Congress in 1986, Lewis has been an enormously successful legislator and represents a thriving district in Atlanta, which has re-elected him 14 times, all but once by 70 percent or more of their ballots.
Few people living have sacrificed more for American democracy than Representative Lewis. By comparison, 70-year-old Donald Trump calls himself “smart” because he leverages loopholes to avoid paying his fair share of taxes. As a businessman, he has been accused of nonpayment by multiple contractors and settled a multi-million dollar fraud case against Trump University. Even his charitable contributions have been self-serving, often made with other people’s money. Trump has never served his country in any capacity. Yet, on the eve of his inauguration, he feels emboldened to defend his attacks against Rep. Lewis.
Representative Lewis makes a good point: Donald Trump’s claim on legitimacy is shaky. Though he lost the popular vote by almost three million votes, Trump won election with the aid of a foreign government’s espionage — espionage that he publicly implored Russia to conduct against Hillary Clinton. His campaign benefited from the breathtaking intervention of the FBI director only days before the election, raising doubts about Clinton but reporting nothing significant. Trump openly advocated that his supporters commit violence against dissenters. He played on our nation’s worst fears and antagonisms. As president-elect, he has interfered with American foreign policy in violation of federal law: inserted himself in the tensions between the Obama administration and Israel; discussed matters of state with Vladimir Putin; and sent his national security advisor to discuss U.S. sanctions on Russia on the day they took effect. This is not a time for political courtesy, but for deepening our commitment to the tradition of nonviolent direct action that Rep. Lewis represents.
Disruptive protest and civil disobedience are American traditions that preceded Dr. King and that the civil rights movement has passed down to us in our time. In any nonviolent campaign, Dr. King said there must be four basic steps: 1) gathering facts about injustice, 2) negotiation, 3) self-purification, and 4) direct action. In response to the real harms that our most vulnerable sisters and brothers have experienced since Trump’s election, I and over 10,000 other moral leaders and directly-impacted persons requested that Trump come down from his tower to meet with us. His only response has been a public attack against Lewis and other “enemies.” So we have dedicated Inauguration Day to to self-purification and preparation for nonviolent direct action.
We celebrate John Lewis for his moral resistance. He stands in the great tradition of his mentors, Dr. King, Ella Baker, Rev. James Lawson and Fannie Lou Hamer, as they stood with the generations who had gone before. This is hardly the first time we have faced racism and a disdain for the poor from the White House. But it is our time now to stand against it. Rep. Lewis’s moral resistance is a rallying cry for all people of conscience. With nonviolent love, we will resist every attack and attempt to implement policy violence. Now is the time. Here is the place. We are the people, and we will be heard.