Proving the Wind: Civil Rights and the American Mission

Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement

by John Lewis

New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1998


An Essay in Review




by John L. Godwin


A black man can be a great leader.

A black man can rise up from poverty and obscurity to attain education, success and acclaim—in the U.S.A..

A black man can, by the courage of his conviction and the power of his spiritual understanding enable a nation to cast aside its history of prejudice and begin to see itself from a whole new perspective.

In this story, the names of the places now ring with familiarity: Nashville, Rock Hill, Anniston, and Birmingham.

The time was the Sixties—the era of the Kennedys and King, the decade of protest and reform.

Today, as a Georgia Congressman from the 5th District, Lewis brings hope for the people of his district, and for oppressed and forgotten people everywhere. For America, this Congressman brings the possibility of new beginnings.

How did it happen this way?

This is the story told in Lewis’s recent book, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. With the help of career journalist, and author of several books, Michael D’Orso, Lewis retraces his path from his beginnings as the son of an impoverished Alabama sharecropper, to national leadership as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1963 to 1966. As SNCC chairman Lewis delivered a speech in Washington, D.C. on August 22, 1963, from the same platform from which Martin Luther King, Jr. electrified the nation and the world with his famous “I Have a Dream” declaration. But the force of Lewis’s story lies in a few key episodes in the Civil Rights Movement in which he emerged on the front lines, suffering agonizing assaults, injuries and humiliation which would have crushed almost any ordinary human—yet in doing so helped to energize a movement while directing public exposure toward the injustices of Jim Crow segregation in the South.

He was a soldier in a nonviolent army, an army of righteousness marching toward the transformation of racist America, and for the creation of the beloved community.

Had fortune dealt with him in a different way the blows that split his skull in 1961 and 1965 might have taken his life, leaving the nation with a civil rights statistic instead of a  living hero.

As a U.S. Congressman today, Lewis speaks out, voicing condemnation of U.S. government surveillance of peace groups in Atlanta, in support of Georgia workers losing jobs at the closing of a Ford Motor Company plant, in support of a commemorative coin for the Civil Rights Movement to raise funds for the United Negro College Fund, speaking out against mandatory minimum sentencing in criminal proceedings, in favor of the renewal of the 1965 Voting Rights law that has provided a bulwark of democracy for African American voters, urging public support for Earth Day and the protection of environmental health and safety of all Americans…

And on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives—voicing condemnation of the George W. Bush administration’s basic dishonesty in mounting the invasion of Iraq by U.S. military forces in March of 2003.


The Sixties and the American Mission:

It goes without saying that Americans of all stripes need a better understanding of the Civil Rights Movement and the 1960s—an era that  is often misunderstood and sometimes misrepresented. The Civil Rights Movement indeed transformed the life and politics of the South, while the Sixties decade altered the course of American history.

The Lewis memoir is a major step toward better understanding of how this occurred and has won enthusiastic praise from a long list of admiring media critics and scholars across the United States.

Only a book written with exactitude and authentic insight could help to uncover a sense of where America and the South stood in 1960—a world in many respects quite different from the one we face today. This was an America still preeminent in world affairs, yet powerfully at odds with the Soviet Union over the direction of development in the Third World, even as old colonial empires of Europe dissolved into decolonizing states. U.S. victory in World War II had tremendous impact: new generations around the world reared in the shadow of war now with optimism emboldened by democratic victory looked to America for leadership and hope.

Motivated from youth by an ever present sense of the crushing reality of rural poverty and racial discrimination, Lewis inherited this postwar optimism, directing it into civil rights protest. Lewis writes with glowing testament to this. But the overwhelming tendency since the 1960s has been to overlook precisely what Lewis emphasizes so strongly—or to deny it altogether—as some historians have clearly done.

Freedom and equality for all Americans was the objective of the Civil Rights Movement, and along with it, a new birth of freedom for the emerging Third World. But the battle could be won through nonviolence and implemented through liberal reform. Social change in the U.S. might coexist with peace among the nations and the beloved community as the objective—not with the bloody tactics of the Sturmabteilung or the reckless revolutionary excesses of the Maoist Red Guard.

Lewis shows that through dedication, the ardent labor of protest and the endurance of abuse at the hands of resistance, the nonviolent civil rights movement triumphed and achieved what Americans one hundred years before might have wished for—meaningful though peaceful reform accomplished through the democratic process. And so this book by John Lewis is like a tonic. It confirms what we think of as best within the American character and validates our national ideals. But it also reveals how far we as Americans have strayed from the idealistic vision that inspired the generation to which Lewis belonged.

From the beginning, Lewis was a young man of rural and religious Alabama origins, deeply inspired by the words and example of Martin Luther King, Jr.. Along with a handful of fellow students in Nashville, Tennessee, Lewis joined what became a vanguard of student activists who participated in some of the earliest sit-in demonstrations and initiated what became the Nashville Student Movement.

Lewis explains how James Lawson, a Korean War conscientious objector and a devoted follower of the nonviolent anti-colonial philosophy of Mohandas Gandhi, also led and inspired the students in Nashville. Lewis shows his intense identification with the group he describes as the New Gandhians, forming a spiritual bond that would remain with them as they moved to the front lines of protest and from there into the forefront of the leadership of SNCC.

Central to this book and its most fundamental assertion is that the Civil Rights Movement drew its force from underlying values consistent with American democracy. It sought to fulfill the aspirations of black Americans in such a way as to contribute forcefully to the betterment of all Americans and others like them throughout the world. Because of this the Civil Rights Movement both confirmed and promoted the American mission in the world.


The War Analogy:

So, it is all the more important that Lewis helps to define the real substance of the CRM in a way that is much at odds with so many of the militant manifestos that have come to assume so large a place within the literature of the 1960s. Yet without a doubt, Lewis was one of the most militant blacks, sharing that passion for justice, which made King and others like him truly feared by his opponents as  “dangerous radicals” in an era of angry protest.

Lewis shows that at every phase, the young Turks of the movement went into each campaign with a gravitas and commitment that was fully equivalent to war itself. Indeed, Lewis repeatedly uses the metaphor of war to describe the mentality of protesters. Young blacks who braced themselves for the oncoming wrath of white racism in Alabama and Mississippi in the 1961 Freedom Rides were like American soldiers on the eve of the Allied invasion at Normandy in 1944. They had all the dedication and courage of a soldiery prepared for battle and were willing to give their lives in a cause they knew only too well might easily result in death.

Doubtless, Lewis as well as other historians of the Sixties could have spilled a lot more ink offering comparisons between the CRM and the cataclysmic events of the American Civil War, or of America’s twentieth century wars. It is not uncommon for historians to do this, whether by implication or otherwise. Yet in so doing they too often forget the obvious and read history only as a footnote to popular prejudice. The Civil War virtually destroyed a generation and left the nation all but permanently divided. The nonviolent movement of the Sixties achieved major reforms without war, creating a legacy that still lives as a shining example of American achievement.

As Lewis reveals, students in the Nashville movement, acting under the influence of James Lawson, talked of Satyagraha—the “soul force” and “holding fast to the truth” and gained a new sense of their own social identity by participating nonviolently in organized protest. Lewis stood consistently among these—consistently advocating nonviolence by putting his life on the line, suffering incarceration more than forty times and sustaining brutal assaults upon his person. The point was not just that Lewis was able to withstand all of this while restraining his impulse to strike back. What Lewis is impassioned about, that concept which lies at the center of this book, involves a more complex construction of the war analogy.

Here the results are more paradoxical than otherwise. In a 1986 film in tribute to King, actor Bill Cosby pointed out that had it not been for the nonviolence of King, American cities might have wound up looking like Beirut, Lebanon, a city that had disintegrated in the face of civil war in the 1980s. The point of the war analogy is to remind us of what might have been had black leaders chosen otherwise. But the Lewis memoir shows that, as for King and so many others who shared the ideological assumptions of the CRM, there was another,

more essential point—that the overall strategy and goals of the CRM were fully appropriate not only because they stopped short of war, but because they were ultimately more effective in producing tangible results. King, who remained conscious that the revolutionary violence of the Civil War had produced only limited gains for African Americans, believed that nonviolent methods would bring reconciliation between blacks and whites, making possible an “active unity with the enlightened South—white and Negro.” (Bold Designs for a New South, Testament of Hope, 115)

Lewis writes movingly of the spirit with which protestors went forward into sit-ins and other situations that involved confrontation with whites: “this was about education, pricking consciences, teaching one race about another, and if need be, about itself.” (99) When faced with arrest, “It felt holy, noble and good…Now I knew I had crossed over, I had stepped through the door into total, unquestioning commitment…It was the purity and utter certainly of the nonviolent path.” (101)

At times critical of the man who most strongly symbolized nonviolence in the U.S.A., Lewis nevertheless shared King’s vision completely and remained convinced in the face of profound disillusionment and pain that the nonviolent path held forth the promise of lasting reform. In the wake of Birmingham and Selma, Lewis saw the promise of democracy realized through the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965—acknowledged by Lewis as essential steps toward racial justice in the U.S.A..


Black Power and the Leadership Question:

On this point the Lewis memoir is particularly engaging. Lewis confirms the works of those who’ve held that students and local community activists made the crucial difference in the movement at every stage. Yet even as victory approached, other leaders offered competing visions. Which after all is more important—the personal flaws or weaknesses of King, or the inherent wisdom of his understanding? Should King be regarded as a national hero or were more obscure figures such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Robert Williams or even Lewis himself equally if not more important? Why did such figures as Thurgood Marshall, Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, Robert Williams and others withhold their support from direct action protests in crucial moments when SNCC leaders such as Lewis put their lives on the line? And when Black Power advocates thrust themselves to the center stage in the mid to late Sixties, did it mean that more effective, and hence more authentic black leadership had emerged?

Such questions as the above may seem frivolous, but they really are of the essence. Since the establishment of Martin Luther King, Jr. as the focal point of a federal holiday—a national icon on the question of race—there has been an almost overwhelming revulsion against foppish lip service to King by insincere whites who would not have supported King or Lewis in the face of their racist critics and attackers.

Alive to the question of authentic leadership, Lewis writes revealingly on the subject of such figures as Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, North Carolina’s Robert Williams, Floyd McKissick, and so many others. Lewis, who recognized Malcolm X in 1963 as a “force to be reckoned with” nevertheless understood that the famous black nationalist “was not about integration, not about an interracial community, and he was not nonviolent.” (206) Thus, Malcolm X was much at odds with the CRM, though later, by the time of his assassination in 1965, a new Malcolm X had emerged, one praised by Lewis as “taking that frustration and rage into a broader perspective of hope and the future…He had begun looking beyond the issues of race to those of class…” (328)

North Carolina’s Robert Williams is also recognized by Lewis as presenting a challenge to civil rights leadership. In 1961 when SNCC leader James Forman traveled to Monroe, N.C. to visit Williams, it was in part to investigate the new attitude of “self defense”. Williams, who rejected the leadership and methods of King, had publicly urged blacks to “meet violence with violence.” (177).

Lewis offers an important account of his relationship to James Forman, who after traveling to Monroe became an adherent to the Williams idea of self-defense. Afterward, Lewis became convinced that Forman, who later became SNCC executive secretary, was not “upfront” and harbored “motives and agendas” that remained hidden. (178) Forman, moreover, became convinced in the mid-Sixties that armed confrontation was sweeping the nation and supported the elevation of Stokely Carmichael to the chairmanship of SNCC, a move that left Lewis deeply wounded and with a profound sense of betrayal.

Lewis’s account also is revealing for its insights into the relationship between SNCC and SCLC. Friction between King, representing an older generation of civil rights leadership, and SNCC activists remained an important undercurrent; yet Lewis acknowledges “I had an extremely deep relationship with Dr. King, and I was not going to give that up.”(379) The New Gandhians became the vanguard of the movement, the shock-troops who stormed the beaches and set the stage for later action at every juncture because, as Lewis effectively shows, they remained independent and disregarded the advice or urgings of older civil rights leaders who told them to wait, or to withdraw. Lewis also reveals that he resisted an ongoing intense pressure from within SNCC to break with King. Indeed, Lewis’s heroic and crucial role in the infamous Bloody Sunday in the Selma campaign might never have occurred as it did had he not rejected this pressure.

For its insights into movement ideology, leadership, organizational relationships and movement politics, Walking With the Wind is a proving ground for historians, invaluable because of the light it sheds on their interpretive accounts. Lewis argues that the CRM had indeed been dealt a crushing blow when President Lyndon Johnson skillfully pulled strings at the1964 Democratic National Convention to cast aside those activists who had risked their lives and suffered brutal punishments on behalf of the Voting Rights Campaign across the Deep South. Assaulted by racists, impugned by the FBI, shoved aside by the manipulative tactics of the Johnson administration, Lewis found himself supplanted by the advocates of Black Power—and the movement he believed in died along with Robert F. Kennedy before the Sixties were out.

The full implication of this thesis is not hard to grasp. The core ideology of the CRM was as much at odds with the revolutionary black nationalism that gained popularity only because repression, violence, and the scheming hypocrisy of LBJ and the FBI discredited the nonviolent leadership and effectively aided the advocates of Black Power. Johnson’s move laid bare the issue of Black Power at a decisive moment, while neutralizing those within the movement who had worked so zealously to promote biracialism and a politics of inclusion.

The outlook that defined the Sixties and the American mission suffered a setback from which it has never fully recovered to this day.  Presidential scholars have indeed confirmed that even as Kennedy came forward in 1963 with an proposal for comprehensive civil rights legislation, he also made serious gestures toward peace on an international level, relaxing the Cold War tensions that had led to confrontation over Cuba, Berlin and Vietnam. The cause of the African American became identified with the international movement for peace and freedom—the American mission that went beyond nuclear testing, brinkmanship, or the Cold War absolutism of McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover. It was this sense of an American mission that attracted Lewis to the Peace Corp, that in the eyes of the world made America great for as long as Kennedy lived. But by 1966 it was a vision that for the most part lay buried, lost in the nightmare at Dallas and the unfolding horror of the Vietnam War.


Walking With the Wind, by John Lewis is a book brilliantly conceived and emphatically written to carry forward the word that inspired a generation. It stands as a witness to a searing and transformative era in the national experience, and will remain of compelling interest to scholars and to future generations.

It is therefore not surprising that this book has already been extolled as a definitive history of the movement. Yet in another sense the Lewis memoir looks beyond the Sixties and its history, because it is also an inspirational book by a man whose insights  are valuable in their own right. Telling the story of his post-Sixties career in politics and gradual rise through the ranks to be elected to the U.S. Congress in 1986, the Lewis story  shows how one man’s career could  fulfill the hope and promise of a generation.

While repeatedly attacked for remaining consistent with his principles and refusing to represent his constituents on the basis of race, Lewis has remained an exceptional figure—the rare individual who could endure so much and yet give so much in return. It is not surprising therefore that John Lewis has been hailed as a first rank leader, one with the potential to fill the void that occurred with the assassination of King.

The word for Lewis—integrity—is as important for its implications for the nation as for the American South. Like King, John Lewis marched for and suffered for a new day in which the enmity between white and black would be replaced with a spirit of civil and political equality. It is a vision that lives on because of Lewis and those like him, who are the essential foundation upon which republics thrive even as its citizens look to the best among them for guideposts to the future.

From Carolina Civic Voice, Spring 2006

Vol. 6, No. 1


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