July marked two years since the passing of American hero and Congressman, John Lewis. Before he held office in D.C., Lewis was the budding chairman of S.N.C.C. (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) turned central leader in the Civil Rights Movement. And as I parse through articles, photographs, and interviews commemorating him and the civil rights legacy — I cannot help but notice the drastic difference between the activists’ humility and our egocentric culture.
Something is happening in our country that I cannot quite explain.
It feels as if our nation is desperate for our constant chaos to stop spinning. It seems we’re collectively fatigued by our division, yet we continuously devour one another online and off the web. Why?
Many times, the answers to our pressing questions are already recorded down in history. As a millennial who knows only a post-segregated America, I’ve always been fascinated with the activists of the Civil Rights Movement. Not only because of their astonishing accomplishments, but how they were able to achieve them non-violently. This philosophy’s been acknowledged for decades, but its discipline has gone over our heads.
During an interview with On Being in 2013, John Lewis thoroughly explained the nonviolent philosophy, and how it wasn’t just a moral stance but a discipline. “Long before any sit-ins, any marches to Selma or Montgomery, any Freedom Rides – we studied civil disobedience.” The activists took courses every Tuesday night in a Methodist church near Fisk University. There they would train and participate in intense workshops, role-playing violent scenarios they’d face during their boycotts, protests, and demonstrations. “You’d trained through the motion of someone harassing you, calling you out of your name, pulling you off your seat, someone kicking you, someone pretending to spit on you. We needed to feel like we were in the actual situation. When the time came, we were prepared.”
But Lewis described civil disobedient training as unnatural to human nature. Because the typical human response would be to physically defend oneself against violence. “You have to be taught the way of peace. You have to be taught the way of love,” Lewis continued, detailing mental tactics that challenged their emotional reaction to hate back. “When someone was hitting us, you have to remember they were once an innocent baby. And you must think, ‘What happened to them along the way?’ In the religious sense, we all have a spark of a divine. We tried to appeal to the goodness of every human.”
Now, this is usually where the nonviolent conversation gets boxed. Where many people classify this philosophy as either having historical superpowers, or the antiquated methods of a past time. And here’s what America’s been missing. Categorizing the actions of the Civil Rights Activists as superhuman is to say these actions cannot be done in contemporary times. As if this movement was a fictitious Justice League ingrained with a rare form of restraint. But Lewis challenged that notion in the interview, insisting their execution of non-violence was not a gift, but a rigorous practice of moral exercises. “The movement was a nonviolent revolution. It was love at its best. It’s one of the highest forms of love.” Lewis continued his point by recalling a humorous moment with his friend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “He told me just to love the hell out of them.” Even though King was being light-hearted, Lewis knew King was not spouting a cliché – but a biblical teaching: “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21) “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44-46)
As Lewis continued with their strategies of love and non-violence, he shared a primary rule taught during the civil workshops – always keep eye contact with the attacker. “If someone kicked us, spit on us, or pulled us off a lunch-counter stool – we were trained to make eye contact with them. We needed to make the impression, ‘Yes, you hit me. But I’m still human.’”
This tactic was a vital weapon to combat their attackers’ hearts. And it made these protests dangerous, but for less apparent reasons. The activists’ restraint against retaliating made for violence against their attacker’s consciences. Not only was their non-violence an inconvenience to the attacker’s wrath, but non-violence accompanied by human eye contact held the perpetrators accountable to their unwarranted war on innocent persons.
And perhaps the absence of eye contact is why it’s so easy for us to fight online. If we had to face the person we’re tweeting, would we?
During one of Lewis’s worst attacks, he and fellow Freedom Rider James Zwerg attempted to enter a “White waiting room“ at a Rock Hill Bus Terminal. Before they were successful, a group of non-uniformed Ku Klux Klanners surrounded them, beat them, and left them in a pool of blood. The local police officers asked if Lewis and Zwerg if they wanted to press charges. They replied, “No,” explaining their non-violence philosophy, “We believe in the way of love.”
I know what you’re probably thinking. No way would I have let them off the hook that easily. Or that Lewis’ actions seem like unrealistic self-control. But later in the interview, Lewis explained their civil disobedience revealed they weren’t just confronting racists, but they were battling within a spiritual confrontation. “In my religious tradition, there is this sense that, ‘It’s going to work out. It’s already done.’ You just have to find a way to make it real.”
In 2009, about fifty years after that beating in Rock Hill, a man named Elwin Wilson traveled to Washington, D.C. to find Congressman Lewis. As Wilson roamed the hallways of the Capitol Building, he found Lewis’s office and knocked on the door. Lewis greeted his unfamiliar face while Wilson explained who he was. “I’m one of the men who beat you in Rock Hill. I want to apologize.” Wilson wept to Lewis, explaining that after finding God he realized he was wrong. “I have felt guilty every day since that moment, will you forgive me?” Lewis embraced Wilson and said, “I forgive you. I don’t have any ill feelings, any bitterness, any malice.” And in the middle of his D.C. office, the ex-Klansman and the civil rights revolutionary held each other, surrounded by defiant love. “It was a moment of grace, a moment of forgiveness and a moment of reconciliation, that’s what the movement was all about.” Lewis also said, “Love has the capacity to bring peace inside of conflict and the capacity to stir up things in order to make things right.”
As I mentioned before, something is going on in this country that needs to be confronted. And perhaps it’s bigger than a political issue or social matter. It might just be the nasty condition of our hearts.
What if we took notes on the lives of Congressman Lewis and Reverend King, Jr.? What if our current division is heavily contingent on what we consume? Could there be a correlation between our internet wars and our interpersonal distrust? Is there something to be said about glorifying drama and violent entertainment and the toxicity ruining our relationships? What if our hopes of unity come from studying it, then practicing it, and acquiring the skills to apply it? What if our constant chaos is because we research negativity, we practice polarization, and we execute our humanity one tweet at a time.
Even though I’m a millennial, I pray for the discipline of my elders in the Civil Rights era. To not only confront culture with humility, but to detox from my ego. We have been overlooking the methods of love for too long. Why wouldn’t we try something that proved it works? Why do we laud MLK Jr.’s speeches, but think his faith was too far-fetched? Love is not a fairytale. Love is not a wish. Love is a practice. Love is an action. Love is restraint. Love is hard to do. But on the flip side, hate is much easier to accomplish. Hate thrives on ego. Hate takes no accountability. Hate advocates for division.
But in 2022, we cannot seem to grasp this concept. We are so engulfed in ourselves and our self-interests—nitpicking and squabbling over trivial things; so when horrific events happen, our divide makes us too prideful to reach over the political lines for help.
And I know these goals seem lofty. But when King authored the “Strength in Love” in 1963, or when he sermoned, “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” a night before his assassination in 1968, he was communicating that a small, faithful movement overcoming America is much stronger than America crushing a faithful movement. The thing about King and Lewis, they didn’t only believe love was greater than hate, but they literally witnessed the hatred inside of their “enemies” be driven out by their faith and humbleness in God. And didn’t God say, “If my people will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will heal their land”? And even if one doesn’t practice biblical teachings, we’ve all known about the benefits of “loving thy neighbors” over hating them, right? But yet, we’re becoming a nation of gracelessness, digitally devouring each other by the hour. And though our division grows after each political blunder or cultural terror, we seem to still be searching for something else — hoping for an awakening from our madness.
Every day we challenge “the opposite side” to magically forfeit and surrender. And for no other reason than believing that we’re right. But here’s an inconvenient truth: nobody is doing that. Furthermore, ignoring that fact will only make things worse.
Late Disclaimer: This essay is not for everyone. It’s not a mainstream take to garner cool points. I’m simply asking a question: “Are we tired yet?” Don’t answer that now, think about it. And as you’re deciding, I’ll end with some final advice from the late, but great, Congressman John Lewis.
“Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won.”