Review: The New John Lewis Biography is a Stirring Tribute that Still Sells Him ShortBreaking News
tags: civil rights, Jon Meacham, biography, book review, John Lewis
John Lewis, the civil rights activist who would go on to become a long-serving congressman and whose death this summer provoked a national outpouring of grief, woke up in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965. He put on his Sunday best, packed a backpack with essentials should he get arrested (two books, a toothbrush, some fruit) and headed out. Just after 2 p.m., Lewis led some 625 marchers on a planned 54-mile march to Montgomery, fighting for the right to vote.
Tear gas, mounted state police and an armed mob met them on the far side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. As Lewis kneeled to pray, they were attacked. He suffered a concussion and a fractured skull. The attack led ultimately to the introduction of the Voting Rights Act.
That Lewis, barely 25, was at the front should come as no surprise. For even though the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was the most famous advocate of Gandhian nonviolence in the civil rights movement, Lewis was probably its most devoted practitioner, and “Bloody Sunday” was where his legend really took root.
But what Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and longtime MSNBC pundit, overlooks in his new account of Lewis’ '60s activism, “His Truth Is Marching On,” is the hard work that turned galvanizing protests into durable gains. Readers who know little about Lewis will find an often moving story, but it will prove unsatisfying to anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the movement.
The book is heavily influenced by a series of interviews Meacham did with the congressman near the end of his life. (Lewis also contributes an afterword.) The aim is less a comprehensive biography than “an appreciative account of the major moments.” The broader goal? To show “the theological understanding [Lewis] brought to the struggle, and the utility of that vision as America enters the third decade of the twenty-first century amid division and fear.”
Over the last two decades, Meacham has chronicled the deep divides in American life. His books, most notably “American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation” (2007) and “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels” (2018), have sought to bridge those divides by championing the value of a civic Christianity in politics and an American history that wants to inspire by reinforcing perceived core values.
For Meacham, the pre-1965 Southern civil rights movement — and the career of the young Lewis in particular — connects these themes to today’s racial reckoning. He sees Lewis as “a reminder that progress, however limited, is possible and that religiously inspired witness and action can help bring about such progress.”
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