I Am Not Saying Lewis is a Sellout

February 12, 2016 Off By Michael
Bernie Sanders standing on the right during a protest over the university of Chicago's segregated housing policy in 1962.

Bernie Sanders standing on the right during a protest over the university of Chicago’s segregated housing policy in 1962.

I am not saying that John Lewis is a sellout, or that John Lewis is an Uncle Tom for “dropping the mic” on Bernie Sanders. Neither am I suggesting that Lewis is a liar as some have strongly intimated over recent comments he has made in support of the Clinton’s involvement in the civil rights movement during the 1960s. However, I do believe that John Lewis does not get to define who was or was not an active participant in the civil rights movement.

So what if Lewis did not meet Bernie Sanders on the civil rights trail? There are countless men and women, black and white, all over this country who participated in that movement for social justice who are faceless and nameless to history and to John Lewis.

Can Lewis rattle off the names of the women who stood over hot stoves to prepare meals for the marchers from Selma to Montgomery? Would Lewis even recognize any of them if shown a picture of them ? If by chance he could do either of these things, then, why has he not used his considerable clout to bring recognition to these people without whose support, the movement would not have received the success that history records.

Countless people who have never had their names in the press or whose deeds will never be recorded in history books participated in that glorious movement to weave Black Americans into the fabric of civil American society.

In 1962, my family and several other families in our church ( Bethel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Macon, Georgia), each hosted a Jesuit priest and a nun in our humble homes during the summer months. They were in Macon doing civil rights work.

Each family did so in spite of threats that their homes would be bombed. I dare say Lewis has no knowledge of the names of any of the people who opened their homes so that the work of the civil rights movement could be successful. Nonetheless, their contributions are just as important as the contributions of those persons that Lewis knew.

In 1965, I, along with several other Black young men integrated the Lanier Jr. High School in Macon, Georgia. All those lonely days, I never saw John Lewis. During all of the taunts, spit balls, and pushing and shoving, I never once saw John Lewis.  When the white boys wrote on the walls of the military science building, “Niggers Go Home or Die,”  I did not see Lewis. Yet, we had to find the courage to carry on in the face of this threat, if this grand idea of integrating American society was going to work.

Did I not have this experience because John Lewis was not there to witness it?

In 1986, John Lewis won a seat in the United States House of Representatives by eviscerating the civil rights legacy of the late Julian Bond. During that campaign, Lewis argued that he was the best Black person to represent Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District, because he was a harder worker than Bond back in their Students for Non-Violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) days.

Lewis said that Bond was lazy, always late for civil rights activities and that they often had to rouse him out of bed in the morning to go stir up civil rights trouble. This was too much inside baseball. Bond had been a popular state legislator in Georgia politics and was nominated to run for Vice President at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He was loved by Atlantans. Lewis destroyed him, sending Bond’s life into a tailspin; only Bond’s strength of character pulled him from utter failure. He rebounded, no thanks to Lewis; and served the civil rights community well as Chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and as a college professor lecturing on the subject of the civil rights movement for many years prior to his death last year.

Bond’s ashes were scattered in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in a private ceremony that did not issue invitations to Lewis or any other of the so called Atlanta civil rights elite.

In 2014, Lewis had an opportunity to help elect Georgia’s first Black senator, former State Senator Steen Miles. Miles would not only have been Georgia’s first Black Senator, she would also have been the state’s’ first woman of any racial hue to be elected senator. Lewis opted instead to support, Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Georgia Senator, Sam Nunn; in spite of the fact that Nunn had virtually no ties to Georgia and preached an ultra conservative Democratic platform.

Lewis, along with several other prominent civil rights icons flooded South Georgia with robocalls during the closing days of the Democratic Primary battle. Miles, operating on a shoestring budget succumbed to the sheer weight of those robocalls.

Miles grew up in South Bend, Indiana as the walls of segregation started tumbling down. Her role in the movement was to apply for careers that to that point in time, had not been charted for Black Americans. She rolled up her sleeves and muscled her way into the news industry, first as a reporter and eventually becoming a News Producer at WXIA-TV in Atlanta. An investigative piece of journalism she reported in 1976 about a grocery store in the Chicago area selling spoiled milk, led the Food and Drug Administration to require date labels on all perishable food items.

So what if Lewis had not met Steen Miles back in 1976? He would probably argue that back in the day, he met the conservative Democrat Sam Nunn.

It was a big movement, John, and you sir, do not get to define who is worthy to speak about contributions which did not occur in your presence.





Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist, the author of Paper puzzle and Justice in the Round. He can be contacted at haroldmichaelharvey.com.