The 53rd anniversary of my father’s death is June 6, and in recent days I have found myself replaying one of my final conversations with Lewis last spring, about how frequently and hypocritically my dad’s name was invoked, particularly by White leaders, in calling for nonviolence during our country’s latest racial reckoning.
While the text of that speech can be pulled up in seconds via any search engine, Lewis quietly reminded me of what has been lost over the last half-century — its context.
Lewis was with my father in Indianapolis the night King was killed, urging him to ignore the advice of White local officials to cancel the rally Lewis had organized on behalf of Daddy’s campaign, scheduled in the heart of the city’s all-Black community. Instead, they went, empathizing with a crowd reeling from tremendous pain.
In that moment, my father’s speech engendered hope. It did so because of his investment in the civil rights movement, his relationship with community leaders who stood with him that night and what he represented as one of the only White political leaders to get proximate to the horrors and fears of Black people across America, from the Mississippi Delta to the streets of Watts and Bedford-Stuyvesant.
This empathetic impulse was the result of years of hard work to step outside himself, to gut check and soul search and learn from past mistakes.
As US Attorney General in the early 1960s, my father was met by a steep learning curve, as armed marshals provided inadequate protection for Freedom Riders and riots ensued over school desegregation at Ole Miss and the University of Alabama.
Thanks to the wise counsel of Lewis and others, my father honed a shoe leather approach of traveling to meet and listen to those living in the poorest and most segregated places in America. This practice ultimately transformed him into a vocal and aggressive champion for civil rights, one who focused on solidarity and using his platform to elevate others.
Long ago, John Lewis gave me a tremendous gift — the understanding that the ideals and memories of my father live on through the courage and commitment of others, like himself. Now, we must expand upon that wisdom.
The day after the Indianapolis rally, my father spoke at the Cleveland City Club, urging listeners, White members of a bastion of local power, to take responsibility for the systemic violence upon which their social standing was built. He noted how “some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them.”
“There is another kind of violence,” he said, “slower but just as deadly and destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.”
Until we truly listen, until we begin to take real and sustained action to root out the evil of racism, of violence, at its source, we cannot hope for change.