Power  /  Profile

John Lewis's American Odyssey

The congressman is the strongest link in American politics between the early 1960s--the glory days of the civil rights movement--and the 1990s.

It’s a little surprising that of all the extraordinary SNCC organizers from the ‘60s—Robert Parris Moses, Julian Bond, Marion Barry, James Forman, Stokely Carmichael—Lewis has risen the highest. Thirty years ago, he was not known for his political skills or theoretical expertise. While more urbane SNCC intellectuals plotted strategy and studied Camus and Fanon, Lewis the grunt inspired the troops by quoting from Scripture and laying his body on the line. “John was not naive, but he made no claim to political shrewdness,” the former SNCC volunteer Mary King later recalled. Nor, at least until recently, did Lewis build much of a reputation in Congress as a powerbroker or policymaker. “He’s a big-picture person who always approaches an issue from a moral standpoint,” one Democratic staffer observed, “but he doesn’t get as much into the nitty-gritty of legislative minutiae.” 

It is, rather, Lewis’s extraordinary personal aura and his moral consistency that commands respect. In an era when politicians, and especially members of Congress, are in bad odor, stigmatized as trimmers and cowards, Lewis “goes with my gut,” as he puts it, instead of heeding either powerful constituents or opinion polls. His eloquent speech in opposition to American entry into the Persian Gulf War—not a popular position for a Georgia politician to take—prompted Speaker Thomas Foley to tap him for the caucus leadership in 1991. Since then, Lewis has shown little hesitation in bucking large House majorities—and even, at times, his fellow Democratic leaders—over matters of conscience, as in his stalwart refusal to back federal laws expanding capital punishment. 

Lewis’s bravery is not merely metaphorical. “In the middle of a bunch of courageous young people, he was the most courageous,” said Julian Bond, who served as SNCC’s press secretary. During the famous 1961 Freedom Ride, in Montgomery, Alabama, and again four years later in Selma, armed segregationists nearly beat Lewis’s brains out, leaving his head permanently dented and scarred. Like Bob Dole’s crippled arm, or John McCain’s sufferings as a prisoner of war, or Bob Kerrey’s Medal of Honor and artificial leg, Lewis’s civil rights travails mark an authentic experience of physical heroism of a sort that has become increasingly rare for Americans. Because Lewis earned his scars in a struggle to fulfill the promises of the Declaration of Independence, he shares with other civil rights heroes, living and dead, the mystique of a modern-day Founding Father.