John Lewis, Crossing the Bridge, Then and Now

A version of this article has been printed in the Austin American-Statesman and a handful of Texas newspapers on their Op-Ed pages. Special thanks to my Episcopal colleague, the Rev. Jim Harrington, pastor of Proyecto Santiago in Austin, for co-writing this article with me.

John Lewis, the fearless civil rights leader, was beaten mercilessly by police and vigilantes on the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Sunday, March 7, 1965 as he helped lead 600 marchers demanding voting rights for Black Alabamians. In the face of violence and hate, the marchers were not deterred. In the words of the civil rights’ folk song, they kept their “eyes on the prize.”

When the original 54-mile march to Montgomery, Alabama’s capitol, resumed two weeks later, under federal protection, people from around the country joined, including religious leaders. Among them, Rabbi Abraham Heschel famously reported that he felt as if he was praying with his feet. By the time the marchers reached the capitol steps after four days, they numbered 25,000. This historic march marshaled the political will President Lyndon Johnson needed to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Bushes and Obamas with John Lewis in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 2015

Fifty years later on the same bridge, Congressman John Lewis helped lead 40,000 marchers to commemorate “Bloody Sunday,” alongside Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, representing America’s vast diversity. Today, February 21, marks the 81st anniversary of this great American’s birth, who passed away in 2020.

As white clergy members, we want uplift two aspects of John Lewis’ legacy during Black History Month, his bridge-building and spirituality (Lewis was an ordained Baptist minister), and appeal to our fractured society, especially our white constituents.

Bridge-building, as embodied by Lewis and the marchers on the Pettus Bridge, is sorely needed in our ever-increasingly polarized society. There are deep chasms to cross: intractable racism, raw politicization, acute economic disparities, white privilege, and abandonment of civil discourse.

Our political leaders have gone astray, and we are complicit. Legitimate give-and-take partisanship has morphed into pitched battle lines, exacerbated by unrepresentative gerrymandering. Politics, rather than accomplishing the people’s business, has become a debauched and destructive blood sport.

Our ever-deepening alienation is raising the specter of even more political violence than we’ve recently witnessed.

Our divisions are deep and harsh, but not unbridgeable, as John Lewis showed. His profound spirituality and love are models for us. He lived through perilous and violent days, and strove to heal the deep wound of racial oppression. His commitment to non-violent, peaceful “good trouble” brought societal healing.

Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Lewis stood tall on Jesus’ teaching while marching on the Pettus Bridge more than 50 years ago. If, as John Lewis described his own experience, he could look into the eyes of the trooper clubbing him, love the officer, and then work harder than ever to change the system that moved the officer to beat and hate Lewis, why can’t we, even if with small steps, adopt a similar type of love, compassion, and commitment to “good trouble” in order to help our society mend?

Certain matters are outside of debate. Racial equality is one. The only question is how to obtain this goal, not whether we should. The art of the possible – the best definition of politics in a democracy – succeeds best in a society that fosters a healthy political partisanship (or non-partisanship). 

As we see it, democracy thrives only in a society that has the ability to bridge differences. Having a commitment to justice and love, whether from religious conviction or otherwise, guides the bridging task. In recent years, the admired American trait of liberty has too often devolved into toxic individualism. The commitment to love one another, another command of Jesus, makes for stronger communities in which individuals can flourish.

This, then, is our message that we take from John Lewis: embrace our connectedness in community; dialog with each other respectfully; work together compassionately toward justice; and “pray with our feet,” even if that means making non-violent “good trouble.”

T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Austin City Lutherans (ACL), the social ministry expression of a dozen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin, Texas. I’m the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, 2019). Readers describe it as “compelling,” “inspiring,” and “well written.”

I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (ACTA-Chicago, 2014), which traces the history of economic inequality in American society. Reviewing Just a Little Bit More, journalist Sam Pizzigati says, “Anderson, above all, writes with a purpose. He’s hoping to help Americans understand that an egalitarian ideal helped create the United States. We need that ideal, Anderson helps us see, now more than ever.”

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