JOHN LEWIS, DONALD TRUMP, AND THE MEANING OF LEGITIMACY (The New Yorker link): John Lewis represents Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District, one vote of four hundred and thirty-five. He is also the singular conscience of Capitol Hill. Lewis is a dismal institution’s griot, a historical actor and hero capable of telling the most complex and painful of American stories—the story of race. That is his job, his mission. With Dr. King and Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker long gone, Lewis remains nearly alone in his capacity to tell the story of that era as a direct witness and, because of all that he has seen and endured, to issue credible moral judgment.
Only a heedless few would reject that judgment out of hand, no matter how wounding. Who would think to call John Lewis “all talk, talk, talk—no action or results”? Who would have the impoverished language to dismiss the whole of John Lewis as “sad”? As it happens, the President-elect of the United States.
Trump chose to launch his political career as a bloviating booster of the racist conspiracy theory known as “birtherism,” declaring, in effect, that the Presidency of Barack Obama was illegitimate. But when Lewis went on “Meet the Press” this weekend and challenged the legitimacy of Trump’s election, citing charges of Russian involvement in the campaign, Trump immediately reached for his phone.
Trump’s inability to restrain himself is on daily display. Meryl Streep is “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood.” “Saturday Night Live” is “really bad television!” Hillary Clinton is “guilty as hell.” He refuses to school himself on policy, but it is a priority of state to sound off on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings on the revival of “The Apprentice.” Trump admires the concision of his own writing. “Somebody said I’m the Ernest Hemingway of a hundred and forty characters,” he said in a speech in South Carolina, without identifying the “somebody.” If Trump doesn’t like someone or something that somebody says, well, “bing, bing, bing—I say something really bad about them.” Just like Abraham Lincoln.
“We’ve made progress, but we are not there yet,” he continued. “There are forces that want to take us back to another place. We don’t want to go back. We want to go forward. As the late A. Philip Randolph, who was the dean of the March on Washington, in 1963, often said, ‘Maybe our forefathers and our foremothers all came to this great land in different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.’ It doesn’t matter how Senator Sessions may smile, how friendly he may be, how he may speak to you, but we need someone who’s going to stand up and speak up and speak out for the people that need help, for people who are being discriminated against.”
For years, Lewis has led commemorations of “Bloody Sunday,” the confrontation on March 7, 1965, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, Alabama, between Alabama state troopers and six hundred peaceful demonstrators. Sessions appeared alongside Lewis at one such event, but Lewis says he is not prepared to invite Trump to the annual occasion.
One can agree or not with Lewis when he calls Trump’s legitimacy into doubt. What cannot be doubted is Lewis’s exemplary life, his moral gravity and authority. He is the rare figure who reminds a people of the fragility of their freedoms and puts his body on the line to protect and demand them. In his astonishing memoir, “Walking with the Wind,” Lewis remembers Bloody Sunday in Selma, the disorienting quiet, the discipline of the marchers, the sobriety, “almost like a funeral procession”:
There was no singing, no shouting—just the sound of scuffling feet. There was something holy about it, as if we were walking down a sacred path. It reminded me of Gandhi’s march to the sea. Dr. King used to say there is nothing more powerful than the rhythm of marching feet, and that was what this was, the marching feet of a determined people.
Lewis was at the head of the long double-file line. He wore a tan raincoat and carried a knapsack containing a book and a couple of pieces of fruit, just in case he got hungry later in jail. The protesters were facing off against countless blue-helmeted Alabama state troopers armed with whips and truncheons. Lewis saw one trooper with a rubber hose wrapped in barbed wire. The streets were lined with “about a hundred whites, laughing and hollering, waving Confederate flags.” Lewis could hear one trooper’s horse snort and wheeze.
That night, an audience of forty-eight million people watched a fifteen-minute report on Selma. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had urged civil-rights leaders to force his hand if they wanted him to support a voting-rights bill, now saw that it was time to promote one. On national television, he compared Selma to Lexington and Concord as a “turning point in man’s unending search for freedom.” And the Voting Rights Act—now under assault in many ways—became law.
Trump avoided the draft by citing bone spurs in his feet. He has said he has made “a lot of sacrifices” for his country because he has created jobs and “built great structures.” The sacrifices that Lewis has made for his country and for the cause of justice are manifest in the scars on his skull. It is a safe bet that he will not be wounded by any tweet. And there are those who know well what he has done to advance the cause of justice and human rights. Eight years ago, at a lunch following the inaugural ceremonies, the new President signed a piece of paper for him with the inscription “Because of you, John. Barack Obama.” John Lewis surely believes in the orderly transfer of power as a tenet of democracy, but asking him to keep quiet and sit through the inaugural ceremonies this time is asking too much.
Mod: Enjoy your day off.