It’s been only a few months since the death of civil rights giant John Lewis, and though eloquent tributes from leaders like Barack Obama have attempted to sum up his legacy, it will ultimately fall to future generations to fully assess his contributions to the cause of racial equality in America. One of our most prominent contemporary historians, Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Meacham, offers an appreciative early assessment in His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope.
Meacham frankly admits that his book makes no attempt at a full-scale biography of Lewis. Instead, he focuses on the tumultuous period from 1957 to 1966, when Lewis rose from obscurity in a family of sharecroppers in Troy, Alabama, to national prominence in the civil rights movement. This “quietly charismatic, forever courtly, implacably serene” man was motivated by a fierce commitment to nonviolence and above all by his unswerving attachment to the vision he shared with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of a “beloved community”—in Lewis’ words, “nothing less than the Christian concept of the kingdom of God on earth.”
As Meacham describes it, Lewis’ path to attaining that vision was marked by arrests (45 in all); savage beatings, like the one he received on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965; and moments of profound frustration as he fought to overcome the fierce opposition to his quest. But there were also moments of triumph, not least of all when he shared the stage with Dr. King at the August 1963 March on Washington and, as Meacham writes, “spoke more simply, but from the valley, among the people whose burdens he knew because they were his burdens, too.”
Meacham makes a persuasive case for his claim that “John Robert Lewis embodied the traits of a saint in the classical Christian sense of the term.” At a moment when events have once again forced Americans to confront the evils of racism, His Truth Is Marching On will inspire both courage and hope.