Reflecting in 1985 on the Mississippi Freedom Summer and the radical moment he came up in, Congressman John Lewis described the endurance required in movement work. “You knew that you had to prepare yourself, condition yourself, if you were going to be there. You knew that you were going to stay for a period of time, and there were going to be disappointments and setbacks,” he wrote for Dissent while still a member of Atlanta’s City Council. “What we tried to instill, particularly among the young people coming down, was that even as they came there, we weren’t going to change Mississippi in a summer or a year, that it was a much longer effort.”
Lewis died on Friday after a life spent in that much longer effort. Come Monday, as tributes to the civil rights icon and former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee continued to pour in, workers across the United States walked off the job as part of the Strike for Black Lives. From Portland, Oregon, to New York City, protesters once again took to the streets in a rejection of racist state violence. There was some kind of symmetry here: Lewis was gone, but his legacy was alive.
And it’s because of this connection—even as Lewis’s congressional politics may not always have aligned with the movements that stood on his shoulders, he believed in the moral necessity of putting your body on the line for justice—that so many of the remembrances being published right now are rightly being ridiculed for their ahistorical superficiality.
You had the obvious offenders, like Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Dan Sullivan who shared photos of Elijah Cummings in social media posts meant to memorialize Lewis. Or Mitch McConnell paying tribute after a career in Congress spent dismantling and undermining Lewis’s life’s work. But there is something subtler in the slow dissemination of hagiography in cable news and mainstream media tributes that performs the same function of co-opting a radical legacy in service of a snuggly sound bite or social media post.
White Americans of both parties tend to like their radicals this way: silenced in death, their legacies newly malleable to all kinds of political contortions.
Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a local study by The Minneapolis Tribune asked Minnesotans whether white Americans should feel guilty following King’s assassination. Eighty-nine percent of respondents answered “No.” When asked to explain their reasoning, 28 percent of those people said it was because they had “No involvement with assassination or with Negro problem in general,” while another 11 percent said the shooting was “King’s (Negroes’) own fault—was just stirring up trouble.”
King, whose radicalism has also been whitewashed posthumously, was seen by white Americans in his lifetime as a threat and an agitator. “The historic debate between advocates of nonviolence and self-defense obscures the reality that nonviolent civil disobedience received widespread condemnation by both defenders of segregation and moderates who personally disapproved of Jim Crow,” Peniel Joseph of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, wrote for The Washington Post in 2018. “Both groups criticized the protest tactics designed to eradicate that evil system.” For King, Lewis and their contemporaries in the civil rights movement, their strategy of nonviolence did not shield them from being attacked by white conservatives and moderates alike as incendiary and dangerous.
This same framework continues to be applied today to people still fighting for their lives and basic dignity. The condemnations of the tactics used and demands made in national uprisings in defense of Black lives are the most immediate and urgent example we have right now, but the recent history on this is long: When protesters rose to decry the shortcomings in President Obama’s immigration policies, they were asked to “sit down” and informed that they were “not paying attention.” The water protectors at Standing Rock, outgunned by a militarized police force, were greeted with political inaction by a Democratic White House until global coverage, spurred by the work of Native organizers, forced the hand of the Obama administration—an ostensible victory swiftly undermined by a new president and bills in state legislatures that outlawed pipeline protests. For nearly a decade now, the Movement for Black Lives has organized a national movement against racist and lethal police brutality and state harm of Black people and communities. It has been met with open contempt and violence to its right and condescension and pragmatic tsk-tsking by liberals trying to explain what it really means or should be doing instead of taking to the streets.
Every time, the call is the same: for justice and equality. And every time, the institutional response is the same: You’re asking for too much, too fast. This was true in Lewis’s youth and remains true today. There are movement leaders and regular people in the streets today whose demands are being ridiculed and demeaned on the same terms. Whose bodies are being brutalized in the same ways.
Even where real progress has been made, with such a heavy debt to be paid to people like Lewis, there is still so far left to travel. In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, a Yahoo News/YouGov poll asked whether race played a major factor in Floyd’s death. Eighty-eight percent of Black Americans felt it did, compared to just 55 percent of white Americans. And while 78 percent of respondents felt that police officer Derek Chauvin deserved to be charged for killing Floyd, when asked about police brutality more broadly, 35 percent of all Americans and 40 percent of white Americans felt that the police are currently using the proper amount of force.
This is the fight that faces the nation now. Too many people are content with the status quo, when the status quo is still wildly unjust. And even if they recognize that certain facets of American industries and governments were constructed around a foundation of white supremacy, there are clear limitations on what they deem acceptable responses when it comes to dismantling these systems.
It is slowly becoming the norm to call out national political actors, for instance Steve King, who no longer bother to hide their racism. What has proven more difficult, though, is the repudiation of the politician who will now publicly state that racism is bad and post a remembrance of Lewis while using their precious chamber time and votes to undermine the very things Lewis put his body on the line to defend.
This is the work that Lewis leaves us to do, with new hands guiding it. How will they be remembered? What will the history books get right and wrong about this moment? Will we let them?