For two weeks, we have watched and listened to history’s recordings of the late John Lewis, speaking powerfully and movingly to us during his lifetime of courageously nonviolent combat in the name of our civil rights.
But we really shouldn’t say our final goodbyes to the iconic man who is just being laid to rest, claimed by cancer after a lifetime of fighting for us all, until we have reflected upon one message he left behind. It is a message most Americans never heard him actually speak. For it was a classic John Lewis gift of leadership by example.
Today, it may be John Lewis’ gift that we most need — right now! — as we struggle to survive this sudden wave of hate that is consuming our streets and cleaving our nation in this long, hot summer of 2020.
During all his battles to gain basic civil rights for his people in the segregated South, Lewis had no fiercer adversary than Alabama’s avowed segregationist governor, George Wallace. In the epic 1965 civil rights walk across Selma’s arcing Edmund Pettus Bridge — it was Gov. Wallace’s state troopers who fractured Lewis’ skull and almost killed him.
Yet, when Wallace died in 1998, John Lewis wrote a column that appeared in The New York Times under the headline: “Forgiving George Wallace.”
“I will never forget Mr. Wallace’s inaugural address as Governor in 1963,” Lewis wrote. “Looking defiant, he declared, ‘Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.’ That day, my heart sank.” Lewis wrote.
He added: “But the George Wallace who sent troops to intimidate peaceful, orderly marchers in Selma in 1965 was not the same man who died this week. With all his failings, Mr. Wallace deserves recognition for seeking redemption for his mistakes, for his willingness to change and to set things right with those he harmed and with his God.”
By then, Wallace was a much-changed man. He had run for president in 1968, as an independent candidate against Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey. His blue-collar populist appeal won strong support in the North as well as the South. Then he ran again in 1972, and an assassin’s bullet put him into a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
“Although we had long been adversaries, I did not meet Governor Wallace until 1979. During that meeting, I could tell that he was a changed man; he was engaged in a campaign to seek forgiveness from the same African-Americans he had oppressed.” Lewis forgave Wallace.
Well, John, I met your tormentor a decade before you did, as a young reporter for Newsday covering the forever-violent 1968 campaign that had already seen the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Wallace was adept at using his populist demagoguery to fan flames of anger. In Cleveland, when police evicted a group of young anti-Vietnam War demonstrators from Wallace’s auditorium rally, I was the only reporter who went outside to see their fate. I jumped into the motorcade press pool car, a convertible parked curbside. The melee erupted beside me.
When police tried to move protesters back on the sidewalk, one officer suddenly smashed his club on the head of a demonstrator who fell beside my car. The cop kept clubbing and others began clubbing the never-violent protesters. A girl ran up yelling “Stop!” The first cop clubbed her and she collapsed. Suddenly Wallace’s car sped out of the garage, with motorcycle police in the lead and a motorcade that consisted of me.
At the airport, Wallace shook each officer’s hand. And I did my job. I told Wallace what I’d witnessed, asked for his comment. He replied police are mostly “too lenient” — and climbed the stairs of his plane. The cops circled me. One asked for my identification; I pulled out my wallet; a second cop slapped it to the ground, scattering cards everywhere. A third cop snatched my notebook. A fourth cop sucker-punched me from behind.
Things were about to get much worse. But then everything stopped. Wallace had reappeared. He’d seen it all, came back down the stairs.
“Hey, Marty,” said Wallace, “I just wanted to say I enjoyed having you travel with me this week. You’re always fair. You’ll be there again on Monday, right?”
Yes, I said — if I survive Cleveland. He smiled, winked and ascended the stairs of his plane. The policemen apologized. “Sorry, sir …” Two others gathered my scattered cards. “We didn’t know …” Another gave returned my notebook. “Didn’t understand.”
So, John, here in 2020 — this year suddenly dominated by hate — perhaps people on both sides of the barriers will be moved by your leadership-by-example. Maybe some will discover they too possess the courage of forgiveness. Hopefully some will give it a try.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at [email protected].