by Rev. Dr. Glenn E. Porter for The Christian Citizen
His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope is Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Jon Meacham’s virtuous offering of “an appreciative account of the major moments” (252) of Congressman John Lewis’s life, from his early childhood days of preaching to his grandmother’s chickens in a deeply segregated Alabama to participating in a protest at Black Lives Matter Plaza, across from the White House, in the present-day, racially divided Trump-era America.
With his hallmark, skillful and engaging storytelling, Meacham nimbly moves the reader along a riveting and inspiring odyssey that expounds upon the “theological understanding” (252) Lewis brought to his committed activism, and uplifts the unquenchable vision for unity that Lewis maintained throughout his life. “The way of the civil rights movement was the way of love, of respect, of the dignity of every person. Not just black, not just white, not just male, not just female, but every person,” stated Lewis. (252)
Meacham, a former executive editor and executive vice president at Random House, is a contributing writer to The New York Times Book Review, contributing editor to Time magazine, and former editor-in-chief of Newsweek magazine. He is a regular contributor to MSNBC. His other biographical works include Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, and American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. Additionally, he edited Voices in Our Blood: America’s Best on the Civil Rights Movement. He holds the Rogers Chair in the American Presidency at Vanderbilt University.
Meacham’s His Truth Is Marching On is based, in part, on conversations with Lewis — both formal and informal, via telephone and in person, over the years, and interviews in 2020, specifically for this biography. The book was published just weeks after Lewis lost his valiant battle to pancreatic cancer on July 17, 2020. The author also drew material from Lewis’s 1998 autobiography, Walking with the Wind. Meacham considered that memoir, co-authored with Michael D’Orso, “candid, reflective, affecting, and enduring,” (252) It offered understanding on “how a sharecropper’s son played a pivotal role in bringing a great nation to moral account.” (252)
In 354 pages — including an afterword written by Lewis and extensive source notes — the author has quickly turned around and published this fascinating profile that marches the reader through Lewis’s impassioned life journey of 80 years, adding the substantive contextual commentary that describes a saintly life —one with “the willingness to suffer and die for others.” (7)
Meacham frames the saga of “history and hope” with Lewis returning to the legendary Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, AL, to participate in a march, as he did 55 years earlier in what has become known as “Bloody Sunday.” The televised images from that original protest — in which Alabama troopers brutally attacked the 600 peaceful protestors — shocked the nation and led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. From that landmark moment, we then begin an unrestrained and action-packed journey that starts in the fiercely segregated Jim Crow Deep South — in Pike County, Alabama, where Lewis’s great-grandfather, Frank Carter, was born into enslavement in 1862. (19) Lewis’s father was a sharecropper.
To borrow from the Apostle Peter in his first letter to Christians in several Roman provinces, Lewis operated in holiness, humility, and with what the Apostle Peter would call “a living hope” in the midst of suffering and trials and being “tested by fire” (1 Peter 1:3-7).
Faith was the foundational power source for the man who would go on to be called “the Conscience of Congress.” Lewis, given a Bible at the age of four, is drawn into the world of Christian faith, the Church, and ministry. He famously started preaching to the chickens on his family’s farm. “I remember my first act of nonviolent protest was when my parents would kill one of the chickens and I would refuse to eat the chicken…I thought it was so wrong.” (27)
Moreover, Lewis’s faith was fueled as a teenager, while listening to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio. The youthful Lewis was immediately captivated by King and transformed by his social justice hermeneutic. “When I heard King, it was as though a light turned on in my heart,” Lewis said. “When I heard his voice, I felt he was talking directly to me. From that moment on, I decided I wanted to be just like him.” (35) Lewis preached his “initial” sermon days before the age of 16.
We discover it was King’s deep African American Baptist roots and homiletical skills, mixed with Walter Rauschenbusch’s “Social Gospel” and Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent protest, that would shape and drive Lewis’s lifetime struggle for basic human rights. Lewis believed the Christian concept of the Kingdom of God is realized in what King would call the Beloved Community.
And because of his unyielding faith, Lewis was forever hopeful — despite being “attacked by police dogs, fire hoses and nightsticks, arrested and taken to jail” — writes Meacham, “Yet as often as Lewis was asked to look back, to tell the old stories and, in a sense, sing the old songs, he was always looking ahead, past the foot of the bridge and along the highway to come. He lived in hope.” (14)
Lewis’s peaceful protests would land him in jail 40 times during the civil rights movement and almost a half dozen times as a member of Congress.
Meacham zeros in on hope and presents the evidence that it was, arguably, the primary and present theme throughout the civil rights’ leader’s life. Its resolve was strengthened in his nonviolence training, marches, lunch counter sit-ins, voter registration campaigns, work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Congress of Racial Equality’s Freedom Rides. It was tested in places like Nashville, Birmingham, Selma, Atlantic City, New York, Memphis, and Los Angeles.
One of the many strengths of Meacham’s work is the “behind the scenes” glimpses of major events, like the 1963 March on Washington. Lewis was just 23 when he spoke at the historic march; the older organizers, like King, convinced Lewis to tone down the radical and passionate words of his speech so they would not offend President Kennedy and his administration. Throughout his life, Lewis remained true to his understanding of the Beloved Community.
Georgians first elected Lewis to the United States House of Representatives for the 5th congressional district in a hotly contested 1986 race against another civil rights activist, Julian Bond. Lewis served until his death in 2020.
President Obama awarded Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. In remarks presenting the medal, Obama spoke of Lewis’s contributions for years to come. He stated, “And generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind — an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time; whose life is a lesson in the fierce urgency of now.”
Meacham hammers home the relevance of Lewis’s lifetime quest for justice in America by leading the reader to present-day events, like the rise of Trump, the global outrage over the Minneapolis police killing of unarmed George Floyd and the killings of other unarmed people of color across the United States, and a chorus of voices calling for the dismantling of systemic racism. (Demonstrations continue today in Louisville, KY and nationwide after the grand jury decision was announced not to charge Louisville police officers in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor.)
His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope is a poetic testament of John Lewis’s desire to keep alive America’s story — and his story — of struggle and hope and redemption in the quest for the Beloved Community. It’s a vision for a United States of America — which requires what Lewis called “good trouble, necessary trouble” if it is to be realized in the here and now. The inextricable connection, intrinsic value and dignity of all peoples is a truth that cannot be crushed. It marches on. We are indebted to Meacham for his preserving this epic story for the ages.
“We are a better people now in spite of everything. In the final analysis, we are good, we are decent. Yes, we still have miles to go, but that's what a journey is, that's what a march is: putting one foot in front of the other,” explained Lewis. (236)
The Rev. Dr. Glenn E. Porter Sr. is senior pastor at Queen Street Baptist Church, Norfolk, Va.; adjunct professor of Religious Studies at Tidewater Community College; and volunteer chaplain with the City of Norfolk Police Department. He is author of “Journey With Jesus Through Lent” (Judson Press, 2017).
Meacham, Jon. His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope. New York: Random House, 2020. 354 pp. $30.
Photo: March 7, 1965: SNCC Chairman John Lewis and Hosea Williams of SCLC lead peaceful voting rights demonstrators across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. | © Alabama Department of Archies and History. Donated by Alabama Media Group. Photo by Tom Lankford, Birmingham News. Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures
For additional reading on the life of Congressman John Lewis:
Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, John Lewis with Michael D’Orso (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks) 1998
Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America, Congressman John Lewis with Brenda Jones (New York: Hachette Books) 2012
March: Book One, John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions) 2013
March: Book Two, John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions) 2015
March: Book Three, John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions) 2016