John Lewis: In Search of the Beloved Community (Black Lives)

Image of John Lewis: In Search of the Beloved Community (Black Lives)
Release Date: 
January 16, 2024
Yale University Press
Reviewed by: 

Despite the horrific racism he’d seen, suffered, and fought against, John Lewis never allowed his heart to be consumed by hate. His whole approach was based on love . . .”

A 2011 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. The Rides had involved courageous young Americans traveling by bus to the Deep South to protest racism and fight for equality. Oprah gathered 178 of the living riders, plus other guests. These other guests included a former Ku Klux Klan member who had beaten up one of the riders, John Lewis, at a bus terminal in South Carolina.

In 2009, nearly half a century later, the former Klan member had called now-Congressman Lewis’s office, apologized for his actions, and asked for forgiveness. Lewis had granted it and invited the man to visit his office. Now, in 2011, on The Oprah Winfrey Show, the former Klan member trembled as he admitted the errors of his ways in front of a TV audience of millions. As he stumbled for words, Lewis, seated next to him, gently touched the man’s hand and said to all within earshot, “He’s my brother.”  

Forgiveness, reconciliation, kindness. That John Lewis could see the humanity and brotherhood in the shape of a former Klan member encapsulates Lewis’s extraordinary character. Despite the horrific racism he’d seen, suffered, and fought against, he never allowed his heart to be consumed by hate. His whole approach was based on love, including loving his enemies. This excellent biography of the civil rights leader, who died in 2020, serves as a reminder of what we lost with Lewis’ passing.

As much as being a biography of John Lewis, the book is a history of the Civil Rights Movement. To a reader in the third decade of the 21st first century, progress seems inevitable—the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the desegregation of schools, buses, restaurants—but, as the book makes clear, the forces against change were seemingly intractable, the dice loaded. It took special people in a special era to overcome the enemies of equality and democracy, and Lewis was indeed special.

Early chapters of the book focus on how Lewis became driven by ideas of social justice at a young age. From his poverty-stricken childhood working in the fields, he understood that things were not fair. But his first calling was to be a preacher, and his first congregation was a gathering of chickens roaming in the family’s yard. By Lewis’s account, they were a rapt audience. Then one day in 1955 he heard Martin Luther King on the radio. Lewis soon embraced the concept of protest through Gandhian nonviolent means—a stance to which he remained faithful his whole life. The book proceeds to describe Lewis’s perilous time as a Freedom Rider and then as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

During these trials by fire (at times, literally), Lewis became known for his courage, both moral and physical. Courage was needed. The reader shudders at the constant barbarity Lewis and his comrades faced. Beatings by white supremacists, murders of civil rights activists, acquittals of the murderers by all-white juries, stints in jail for demanding Constitutional rights, admonitions to be patient, and condescension by politicians of all stripes. Some of the episodes ring with a tragic irony. Lewis’s first arrest was for disorderly conduct; his conduct consisted of sitting impassively at a whites-only counter while white racists punched and kicked him (and were not arrested).

The usual pantomime villains such as racist police officers and segregationist politicians make their appearance, but at the time there were many, many liberals and African Americans, including Lewis’ parents, who didn’t want to stir things up by fighting the good fight. Lewis saw things differently and his unique vision and steadfastness run through the book like a river. He remained calm, determined, and disciplined, never stooping to the tactics used by his oppressors.   

The second half of the book sees Lewis move, in the words of Bayard Rustin, “from protest to politics.” As a Congressman, he continued to advocate for civil rights historically denied to African Americans, particularly voting rights, but he also championed LGBTQ rights, environmental stewardship, immigrants, the poor, antiwar movements, women’s rights, free healthcare, and African nations attempting to shake off the shackles of colonization. If there’s a revelation here, it’s that Lewis didn’t see himself as working for African Americans; he was working for justice for everyone—a higher calling.

John Lewis: In Search of the Beloved Community is superbly researched and fluidly written, but it has one weakness: We learn little about Lewis’ personal life. Halfway through the book, we have no idea if he has ever fallen in love, what he likes to do in his free time, how he socializes with friends, or any of the personal details that would give us a fuller picture of the man. Maybe Lewis was so engaged with civil rights that these things were insignificant, but as we move from countless meetings to protest marches to the halls of Congress, the reader might wonder, futilely, about Lewis’s life outside the struggle. His wife Lillian is barely mentioned.

If Lewis’ family life is invisible, his life as a public servant is front and center. Throughout his trials and tribulations on the streets and in Congress, his character never changed. Somehow, the murderous depravity of racist white southerners, the spinelessness of vacillating liberals like the Kennedys, and the machinations of anti-democratic right-wingers left his spirit undaunted. When he appeared in a Time magazine list of “Messengers of Love and Hope: Living Saints” in December 1975 alongside the likes of Mother Teresa, his colleagues jokingly began to call him Saint John. Ever modest, he brushed it off. But eventually even his supposed enemies—Republican politicians and conservatives everywhere—realized Lewis lived an exemplary life.

Lewis’s best-known phrase is an imperative to activists everywhere: “get into good trouble.” He did just that for over six decades in the service of what he called “the Beloved Community.” Along with fellow civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash, and James Lawson, Lewis brought the United States kicking and screaming into a new democratic age.

His achievements are perhaps best summed up by the most famous beneficiary of the Civil Rights Movement, Barack Obama: “Generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind—an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time; whose life is a lesson in the fierce urgency of now.”