Worth Reading: The gripping story of the early work of civil rights icon John Lewis

Cortney Morse Doucette


VIRGINIA BEACH — The story of John Lewis is one of faith. Faith in a higher power. Faith in the leaders he revered. Faith in humanity.

His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope, is Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Jon Meacham’s 2020 portrait of the civil rights icon and long-time Congressman from Georgia who died in July at age 80. 

Readers are introduced to John Robert Lewis of Troy, Ala., the youngest of 10 whose great grandfather was born enslaved. Initially a tenant farmer, Lewis’s father eventually purchased his own acreage. The family raised cotton, corn, peanuts and chickens. Lewis was accustomed to hard work, but early on showed an affinity for the ministry when he preached to the chickens he was charged with. 

Racial segregation and violence were common in mid-century Alabama and they shaped the worldview of this thoughtful young man. Lewis was 14 when Brown v. Board of Education was decided, 15 when Emmett Till was murdered, and 16 when he first heard the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio. King would prove to be the bridge connecting Lewis’s religious faith to his abiding concern with the injustices of this life.

Meacham quickly moves from the relevant circumstances of Lewis’s early life to the point where he begins to engage beyond his Troy foundations. Emmett Till was similar in age to Lewis, and his 1955 lynching in nearby Mississippi was “terrifying” to the young Lewis. 

Soon thereafter, Rosa Parks inspired the Montgomery bus boycotts, and then Autherine Lucy was in the newspapers for the violence surrounding her integration into the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Alabama was emerging as the center of the resistance, and there was a teenaged John Lewis taking it all in as he prepared to deliver his first real sermon. 

His Truth Is Marching On continues to gather momentum as events in America swell against racial inequities. Lewis attends seminary in Nashville, Tenn., where he finds like-minded students who are determined to be changemakers against injustice. Meacham details the ordeals of integrating lunch counters, schools, and interstate highways. Readers learn about influences including the Highlander Folk School that honed the philosophy of the leaders of the non-violent movement. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, had been formed in 1960. Lewis became its chairperson in 1963. 

This was the year of the March on Washington, at which Lewis gave a memorable speech. Two years later, in Selma, Ala., the movement culminated in the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in what came to be known as Bloody Sunday. 

Led by Lewis and King, the extreme violence perpetrated by armed police against the peaceful marchers proved to be a turning point for the country. Lewis suffered a fractured skull.

This is not the full story of the enormous accomplishments in the life of Lewis. But Meacham tells the gripping stories of beatings and arrests in relentless succession, as Lewis and his peers tenaciously press on to break through the hatred and violence of the segregated South and create the ideal Lewis often spoke of throughout his life, a “beloved community.” 

Through sit-ins, marches, and finally the Voting Rights Act, readers see the cost of progress. The book draws to a close in 1968, with King shot in April and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy the following June. It is a shocking and abrupt end to this story of a nonviolent movement.

An epilogue provides a glancing review of the second half of Lewis’s life. Meacham provides a timeline of Lewis’s time in elected offices as well as his reflections towards the end of his life. But it is the deep faith and commitment in his early years that provides readers invaluable insight and perspective on issues which continue to affect this country today.

The author, a senior channel marketing manager for a technology firm, lives in Back Bay.

© 2021 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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