Remembering civil rights icon and U.S. Congressman John Lewis.
Being only two years younger than John Lewis, even now I well remember his early years when he took the first blow for freedom, stepping off a bus during an effort to test the Supreme Court’s ruling against segregation on interstate bus routes and toilets.
It was a case that came to be known as the Boynton decision, bearing the name of Bruce Boynton, a Black college student discriminated against on an interstate bus route.
There was no social media and only three television networks, none with any people of color. But that seminal moment in our history lit up the country and the world to the challenges America faced on the road to freedom and justice for all, regardless of race, creed, color or national origin.
And before that journey began, John and a group of 13 Blacks and whites signed their wills. As John wrote: "We were prepared to die. Some of us signed letters and wills. We didn’t know if we’d return."
In Rock Hill , S.C, they encountered their first violent resistance. As I wrote in "To The Mountaintop," a book for younger readers whose parents weren’t even born then:
"A group of white toughs who frequented the bus station’s pinball machines were not waiting on the Freedom Riders, but when John Lewis stepped off the Greyhound bus and attempted to enter through the white entrance, one of the whites directed him to the colored entrance. Lewis responded: ’I have a right to go in there on the grounds of the Supreme Court decision in the Boynton case.’
"One of the white youths spat out a profanity , and when Lewis ignored it and started in through the door a young white man punched him in the mouth, thus giving Lewis the dubious (but dare I say today, honorable) distinction of taking the first blow to a Freedom Rider.
"When other attackers proceeded to beat Lewis, Albert Bigelow, a white Freedom Rider, stepped in between them and was beaten to the ground. So was Genevieve Hughes, a female Freedom Rider. But beaten, bruised, and bleeding, they all got up and refused to press charges against their attackers."
The next day, the group stopped only once, and briefly, in Athens, Georgia. What is most significant about that moment to me is that a few blocks from where they stopped, I sat alone in my dormitory, segregated on the first floor, away from all the other female students on the second floor — the University of Georgia’s (UGA) way of resisting the law they couldn't legally resist to desegregate.
But while I didn’t know about the Freedom Riders’ stop at that time, I did know about those who were engaged in the struggle for justice — as they were only 73 miles away in Atlanta, my home town. On weekends, I used to travel there to practice what would ultimately become my lifelong profession as I helped out on the Atlanta Inquirer, a small newspaper started to accurately cover the Atlanta Student Movement, which the all-white newspaper in the city didn’t do and which the Black newspaper didn’t do fully, due to constraints by its white advertisers.
One of two editors on the Inquirer was Julian Bond, a local student from the all-Black Morehouse College who later teamed up with John to push for voting rights; and an English professor, M. Carl Holman, from the all-Black Clark College.
Julian divided his time between getting out the paper and working with the Atlanta students, including helping write their manifesto called the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights. They swore to go to jail without bail until their demands were met. And some, did, in fact, go to jail, along with Martin Luther King Jr., who had joined them.
Like today, the young ones had ideas of their own about how to confront injustice, but respect for elders in the movement and the road they had traveled led to a coalition of the generations that ultimately proved successful.
That decade is where the passing of John Lewis took me to. For while Hamilton Holmes and I were alone as Black students on the UGA campus, part of our ability to survive that lonely and sometimes challenging journey was the example of people like John Lewis and Julian Bond and so many others who were confronting violence — beyond the silent violence we were being exposed to daily and being the horrified victims of it — all to make America live up to its promise and to understand its potential greatness.
And while these protests were aimed at achieving equality for people who looked like me — darker or lighter — and were led by people my age and even younger, they were joined by people of all ages, races, creeds and colors who were on board with the ultimate goal of freedom for all.
John Lewis and his moral crusade continued until he became our latest ancestor last week. We all have an obligation to ensure his life was not in vain. How do we do that, in a nation so divided that we can’t even agree on how to protect ourselves and each other from this latest pandemic?
We need to figure out how to share our history , especially with our young, because there is evidence that some 85% of our schools are not teaching all of it. On my PBS NewsHour Race Matters Series, author Margaret Hagerman told me this:
"I think that the most important thing that white parents can do is embrace the idea that all children are worthy of their consideration and that we should care about our community. We should think about the collective good. We should focus on how we can help everyone, rather than just focusing on our own child."
Even when our segregated schools had to depend on hand-me-down textbooks from the white schools, often with pages missing, when our people couldn’t give us first-class citizenship, they gave us a first-class sense of ourselves. So many of us today are trying to hold on to that important message.
Now, in this current moment of twin pandemics — COVID-19 and injustice — I return to John Lewis and his now immortal words, most recently remembered by his Civil Rights colleague, Andrew Young: that we need to learn to "disagree without being disagreeable."
With my history and John’s in my head and heart, I agree.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is an author whose books include "To The Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement." Hunter-Gault, a Sarasota resident, is also a journalist and lecturer.