Alan Chartock | I, Publius: John Lewis set example for how to combat oppression
I've been blessed with more than my share. I got to spend significant time with Pete Seeger. I shared a long running radio show with Mario Cuomo. But the other day, Roselle and I got to sit at a pre-commencement breakfast table at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts with the living legend, John Lewis.
He truly earned that status. Now a member of Congress, Lewis got his head busted on the Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to Selma, Ala. He knew Martin Luther King Jr., he met W.E.B. Dubois and Rosa Parks. He dedicated his life to the struggle for civil rights.
Nor did he leave his guts at the door.
In the House of Representatives, where he sits next to the brilliant U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, he has demonstrated the same kind of leadership that he displayed on that bridge in Alabama. You may remember that at one point Lewis led his colleagues in a sit-in to protest the lack of action on gun violence. Of course, he was showing the same courage he and his friends demonstrated when segregationist cops were beating them and turning their dogs on them.
Courage is an often overused word but John Lewis has it. He was one of his family's many children who actually picked cotton with his sharecropper father and mother. He remembers his mother saying to him when he complained about the work, "Hard work never killed anyone."
When you hear the man speak, you hear overwhelming dignity in a low voice. He says that as a child he was painfully shy. When you look at him today, despite the intervening years and experiences, you can still see the shy child that he once was.
With Donald Trump sitting in the White House, this country is in great need of heroes like John Lewis. This is a man who is literally willing to put his life on the line. If Trump is up to what I think he is planning to do, a lot of people are going to have to do more than talk. As the old advertising slogan once suggested, "You can pay me now or you can pay me later."
If the democratic system we now enjoy is threatened, the question is where the John Lewises will come from. In the same way that John Lewis knew from his teens that he would have to lay it all on the line, each of us will have to think through whether civil disobedience, no matter what the personal cost, is worth it. There are those who believe that when a system becomes oppressive, those who see themselves as oppressed should act in a violent manner. I am not one of those. Neither is John Lewis, who is a peaceable man.
We have many left-leaning politicians who can access a great deal of money and run for office. When Trump carries their districts they get worried and run for the hills. The difference between John Lewis and those folks is the level of commitment. His is true leadership because he sets the example for others to follow.
So many of our politicians are always looking to the next election as if that was their one true purpose in life. But if you aren't so committed that you live in the moment that the real danger is showing its evil face, you are not a hero and you will never be a hero.
John Lewis got his brains bashed on that bridge. Trust me, he wasn't doing it to get ahead. Dogs and prison and beatings were happening and John Lewis stood tall. So now, in the time of Trump, we need him more than ever.
Nice to have breakfast with a legend who possesses the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.
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