When civil rights activist and U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia died last month, so did a big piece of America.
Lewis was the rarest of things — a politician who was roundly admired by Americans of different political stripes (with the exception of President Trump, who criticized Lewis for not attending his inauguration, claiming that “nobody has done more for Black Americans than I have”).
Among Lewis’ admirers is Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and journalist. Meacham tells the story of Lewis’ involvement in the civil rights movement in His Truth Is Marching On, published just weeks after the congressman’s death. It’s an interesting book, though limited in scope — while Meacham does a good job contextualizing Lewis’ civil rights work in the 1960s, it doesn’t paint a full portrait of the legendary activist.
In the introduction to the book, Meacham makes the argument that Lewis wasn’t just saintly but, in fact, a saint. “John Robert Lewis embodies the traits of a saint in the classical Christian sense of the term,” Meacham writes. “One test of a saint, closely tied to the test of a martyr, is the willingness to suffer and die for others. Which Lewis was willing to do — again and again and again.”
And in the body of the book, he presents ample evidence to bolster his claim. The book starts off with a brief look at Lewis’ childhood in Pike County, Ala. His parents didn’t share his activism: “Theirs was, as the Bible says, a straight and narrow way,” Meacham quotes Lewis as saying. Lewis loved church from an early age and practiced preaching to an audience of chickens. And when one of the animals died, Meacham writes, “Lewis would conduct a full funeral, complete with readings from scripture and a eulogy.”
As a student at the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Tennessee, he tried to organize a chapter of the NAACP but was rebuffed by the school’s administration. He enrolled at the Highlander Folk School, an institution that trained activists for social justice causes, and soon after embarked on his first organized protest, a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter.
Many more would come, with Lewis always following the principle of nonviolence articulated by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides in which activists sought to fight segregation on buses and their terminals. He was beaten in Rock Hill, S.C., by a gang of white racists, never fighting back: “Repeatedly struck in the face and kicked in his sides as he fell to the ground, Lewis remembered the taste of blood in his mouth.”
Meacham writes eloquently about Lewis’ participation in the first march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, known as “Bloody Sunday,” in which Lewis and dozens of other protesters were brutally beaten and tear-gassed by state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma (named after a 19th-century Ku Klux Klan leader). Lewis thought he would die on the bridge, but, Meacham writes, “for Lewis there was no sense of panic, no gasping, no thrashing, no fear. He was at peace.”
His Truth Is Marching On effectively ends in 1968, though in an epilogue, Meacham gives a summary of the remainder of Lewis’ life, including his political career, his National Book Award win in 2016, and his reaction to Trump’s election (he was “horrified,” Meacham writes).
Meacham’s book is good for what it is — an introduction to one decade in Lewis’ remarkable life. It’s not more than that, and doesn’t quite seek to be, but readers hoping to find a full portrait of the congressman will be disappointed. The timing of the book’s publication suggests it might have been rushed to print before the presidential election — Meacham spoke at this year’s Democratic National Convention; he and presidential candidate Joe Biden are friends.
The most interesting parts of Meacham’s book are his observations about how Lewis’ activism was inspired by his Christian faith: “Lewis did not doubt … the Christian story to which he gave his heart and his mind and his spirit commands us to open our arms, not to clench our fists. To give, not to take. To see, not to look away.” But while Meacham is undoubtedly sincere about his admiration for Lewis’ faith, concentrating mostly on that aspect of his life — an undeniably important one, to be sure — limits the book in a way many might find frustrating.
His Truth Is Marching On is well worth reading, especially for readers with an abiding interest in the intersection of religion and progressive politics, but it’s not the comprehensive portrait of the American hero for which many might be hoping. Nonetheless, it’s an inspiring book that comes at a time when the world desperately needs inspiration. “When I was growing up there was a song that people would sing in the church: I’m so glad trouble don’t last always, O my Lord, O my Lord,” Lewis writes in the book’s afterword. “You have to believe that. You have to believe it. It’s all going to work out.”