He was a diminutive teenager from a dirt farm in Alabama who stuttered and stumbled over pronouncing big words. Some of his fellow seminary students called him a country hick behind his back.
He was so earnest that when a seminary professor returned his heavily corrected paper, he didn’t get angry. He instead sent the professor a note of thanks, saying no one had ever tried to help him like this before.
“Every word from him,” the professor later said about the young man named John Robert Lewis, “had its own special truth. They might as well be carved in granite if John spoke them.”
That “special truth” is what many tributes to US Rep. John Lewis missed when they marked his death last weekend.
His death came on the same day as another civil rights giant, the Rev. C.T. Vivian, and four months after that of Joseph E. Lowery.
Taken together, they seem to mark an end. Lewis was depicted as one of the last living links to the classic civil rights era of epic marches and rousing speeches.
And with his demise, the obvious questions arose: Who are the Black leaders to champion the civil rights battles of today?
The answer: no one. And that’s a good thing.
The truth is Lewis was no civil rights “hero,” and that’s precisely what made him special.
In many ways, Lewis had more in common with the Black Lives Matter protestors who filled the nation’s streets earlier this year than the iconic civil rights leaders he’s so often compared to.
The era of great speeches is over
Consider the story about Lewis’ “special truth.”
Those words come from the pen of Pulitzer-Prize winning author, David Halberstam, who wrote about Lewis’ formative years in a classic civil rights book called “The Children.”
It details Lewis’ journey from poverty in rural Alabama to his enrollment at the American Baptist College in Nashville. The city became a launching pad for the student sit-in movement in the early 1960s.
Some of Lewis’ fellow students underestimated him because he wasn’t a great speaker.
The classic civil rights era was defined by them, and it wasn’t just the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. People like Malcolm X, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Stokely Carmichael could also bring an audience to its feet.
Yet a movement doesn’t need a great speaker to be successful today. Black Lives Matter is proof of that. So was Lewis.
Lewis was in seemingly every big civil rights battle: the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, and the March on Washington. Can anyone, though, cite a great speech from him?
He is known more for what he didn’t say in his most famous speech, the one he gave at the 1963 March on Washington. March organizers asked him to cut portions they deemed too inflammatory.
Diane Nash, another civil rights icon who was a leader in the Nashville sit-in movement, said Lewis was like that from the beginning. He wouldn’t say much when student sit-in leaders convened fiery meetings to discuss decisions that could cost them their lives.
“His verbal contribution would often be a sentence like, ‘I think we need a sit-in tomorrow,’ ” she says. “That’s about all he would say.”
Yet Lewis was considered one of the greatest student sit-in leaders by the sheer power of his example. He kept showing up at the front of protests no matter how many times he was assaulted.
The power of that kind of persistence sometimes gets lost when people talk about that era. People overestimate the power of a great speech. They think the movement was powered by Aaron Sorkin-like moments: Impossibly eloquent leaders unfurling brilliant speeches skewering their opponents.
But King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” wouldn’t have mattered much if the movement didn’t keep up the pressure of demonstrations through campaigns in Mississippi the next year and Alabama the following year. It wouldn’t have mattered much if President Lyndon Johnson didn’t use all of his legislative cunning to steer the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Persistence matters more than eloquence
Persistence is more important than eloquence. Lewis proved that. Black Lives Matter and the other protestors are proving that today.
Can anyone, for example, cite any great speech from any of those protestors this year? But the absence of such a moment didn’t slow it down.
One of the most defining moments in this year’s protests didn’t even come through words but came through a piece of street theater. An unidentified woman dubbed the “Naked Athena” seized the spotlight this past weekend when she appeared “like an apparition” before armed police troops and dared them to hurt her.
She never said a word but her surreal appearance and calm amid danger may be one of those signature protest moments.
Technology fuels movements now
There’s another reason that protest movements don’t need great speeches to fuel them: technology. Today’s protestors don’t just want to listen; they want to express themselves as well.
We live in an era when people are accustomed to having their own platform, Timothy Patrick McCarthy, an activist and historian at the Harvard Kennedy School Harvard University, told me when I interviewed him for a story about BLM.
“Everybody tweets, Snapchats and posts on Facebook,” he said. “Everybody has a platform.”
A movement is no longer dependent on a charismatic leader
The tributes to Lewis also missed something else about the man. They called him a “civil rights leader.”
That’s actually the wrong word to use for Lewis, say some who worked for him.
“John didn’t see himself as a spokesperson or a leader but as an organizer,” says Larry Rubin, who worked alongside Lewis in a group called SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
“To be an effective organizer, you had to set your ego aside because you were building up others.”
Whether they know it or not, BLM subscribes to the same leadership model that Lewis followed. It’s a “a” organization; so are many of the other protests against police brutality that spread across the country.
“We’ve always made it clear that we are one of many,” Johnetta Elzie, a leader in the BLM movement and Campaign Zero, another organization formed to fight police brutality, once told me. “There’s not one person who can be a leader of the movement. We’re all leaders.”
Many critics thought BLM was making a mistake. They thought an organization needed strong central leadership to articulate goals, beat back criticism and provide direction. (I was one of them.)
Elzie was right — this year’s protests prove her point. But Lewis and SNCC members proved that point years ago.
SNCC didn’t provide charismatic leaders. They encouraged people in the community to step out in front, like Fannie Lou Hamer, the Mississippi sharecropper who turned out to be one of the most mesmerizing leaders in the movement.
There’s a pragmatism in this approach as well. Movements built around charismatic leaders evaporate when that leader is assassinated or discredited. The civil rights movement never recovered from the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Few today can name the organization that Malcolm X headed when he was assassinated by Nation of Islam members (It was called the Organization of Afro-American Unity).
A singular leader may not survive today’s media scrutiny
There’s another reason why building a movement around a singular leader might not work today: They may not survive today’s media environment.
How, for example, would conservative media treat King’s alleged marital infidelity? How would social media handle Malcolm’s criminal past as “Detroit Red.” Public figures don’t have private lives anymore. There are so many ways that a leader can be discredited.
Lewis, to his credit, never went through that social media crucible. He preserved almost universal respect until the very end. He also lived long enough to see the election of the nation’s first Black president as well as the Floyd protests spreading across the world this year.
He talked about the protests often before he passed.
“This feels and looks so different,” he said in an interview with CBS not long before he died. “It is so much more massive and all inclusive.”
Still, the people who flooded the streets this year aren’t that much different than the young Lewis who people made fun of in seminary.
They spoke with actions, not words. They kept coming back the next day, no matter how much they were hurt. And they defied all the expectations for what a civil rights leader was supposed to talk and act like.
It’s true that Lewis belongs to the era of Freedom Rides and epic marches, but he also showed you don’t need to be a traditional civil rights hero to get things done.
We do him a disservice if we freeze him in the black and white footage of the 1960s.
He doesn’t just belong on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He’s in the streets of places like Portland, where protestors keep marching through tear gas and rubber bullets.
He lives today as much as he has in the past.