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In search of the Beloved Community: Remembering Congressman John Lewis

Raymond Arsenault is the author of "John Lewis: In Search of the Beloved Community."
Matthew Peddie
Raymond Arsenault is the author of "John Lewis: In Search of the Beloved Community."

In this episode of Florida Matters, we speak to Florida historian and professor Raymond Arsenault on his new biography on the late Congressman John Lewis.

Congressman John Lewis spent a lifetime fighting for equality. When the Georgia representative died in 2020, aged 80, America had changed profoundly from when Lewis fought for desegregation as a young civil rights activist.

Lewis himself sometimes marveled at the remarkable journey his life took from the deep segregated South to the halls of Congress. Here he is in 2014, accepting the Freedom Award from the U.S. Capitol Historical Society.

“The people of this great nation have brought me a mighty long way from the red hills of Alabama. From the muddy road where I was born the son of a sharecropper, picking cotton, gathering peanuts, pulling corn and preaching to chickens.”

While much has changed, America still faces challenges at home and abroad, and threats remain to issues that Lewis held dear, like voting rights and social justice.

On this episode of Florida Matters, we talk with historian Raymond Arsenault, who has spent much of his career speaking with and writing about those at the center of the civil rights movement, including John Lewis.

Arsenault is the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History Emeritus at the University of South Florida, and is co-founder and senior scholar of the University of South Florida’s Florida Studies Program.

His new biography is "John Lewis, In Search of the Beloved Community." A passage from his book reads as follows:

“Although Lewis did not yet have the words to describe what he wanted to do with his life, he knew he had to do something to make at least his part of the world a more just and humane place. He was ready to become an activist for social justice, even if he didn’t understand all the implications of that. The watchwords of his life — seeking the Beloved Community and promoting “good trouble” — lay in his future. But he had reached a tipping point in his journey to a life devoted to purposeful action. All he needed was a role model to show him how he could draw on the wellspring of courage and commitment flowing through his heart and mind.”

A couple of things happened around this time that had a big impact on Lewis. It’s a year after the milestone Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, that led to the desegregation of public schools. And in August 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered in a racially motivated killing that shocked the country.

Arsenault writes that the role model Lewis found turned out to be the entire Black community of Montgomery, Alabama during the bus boycott. He says the boycott, later known as “The Miracle in Montgomery,” significantly impacted Lewis because it’s when Dr. Martin Luther King really became someone he greatly admired and looked up to. The boycott itself set a tone for how he would fight against inequality for the rest of his life.

“It was really a display of the social gospel, another way of looking at religion. And not just pie in the sky and talking about what will happen to you in Heaven, but reforming and revolutionizing things down on Earth,” Arsenault said.

At 18, Lewis met Dr. King when he was a freshman at the American Baptist Theological Seminary School. After being disappointed from being told he wasn’t allowed to start an NAACP chapter on campus, Lewis felt he might be able to desegregate Troy State University. He wrote Dr. King about this and they met shortly after. King gave Lewis his support but warned him of a dangerous journey, saying it could bring harm to his family, which included nine siblings, as well as him. After talking it over with his parents, however, he decided to leave the situation alone.

In 1958, Lewis met another person who would become his mentor, James Lawson. Under the advisement of King, Lawson was in Nashville giving nonviolent workshops. Lawson and his students would role play scenarios of situations they would encounter while protesting.

“They would beat up each other up and spit on each other and use racial epithets just to make sure that they would not fight back,” Arsenault said. “That they would be truly non-violent in the Gandhian sense. And Lawson just inspired them to follow him.”

They were preparing for their first sit-in. However, the sit-ins in Greensboro in February 1960 would end up happening before theirs.

“There were student movements all over, but nothing like Nashville,” Arsenault said of Lawson and his students. “They were probably the most religious and the most connected to the ‘Beloved Community,’ which was Lawson's kind of main concept.”

Arsenault describes the “Beloved Community” a utopian notion — a world where there is no division.

“One way to put it is a world where you love your enemies as much as you love your friends. I suppose in the real sense of the Beloved Community, there are no more enemies. It's a way of peace and justice. John Lewis and the others knew they probably would never see anything like that. But fighting for it was what they were all about.”

Lewis was one of Lawson’s first students, along with several others like Diane Nash, Jim Bevel, and Ybor City native Dr. Bernard LaFayette, whom Arsenault dedicated his book to. Many of the people in these workshops later went on to become the Freedom Riders.

While many of them veered away from the social gospel and went on to live other lives, Lewis never wavered.

“It's a deep, passionate commitment that informed everything that he did,” he said.

In April 1960, Lewis was arrested. This would be the first of 40 times he was arrested. It was during his participation in the lunch counter sit-ins.

“He was beaten more than 40 times and he was arrested more than 40 times. As I say, in the book, he was the one civil rights leader where you would expect to see him with a bandage on his head,” Arsenault explained. “He was really kind of in the trenches, putting his body on the line. Of course, it was very embarrassing for his family. They didn't send him up to Nashville to get arrested. And they never quite understood at least until years later, why he felt so passionate about it, and why he was willing to, to risk his life. Not for freedom later, but for freedom now."

"From these sit-ins came the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced like “Snick”). They were known as the most radical of the civil rights organizations. It was an organization that really didn't believe in leadership in the traditional sense. In some ways, that went along with the Beloved Community and the notion that you have to reach inside yourself to find the power not only to change your own life, but to change the world,” Arsenault said.

Raymond Arsenault is the author of "John Lewis: In Search of the Beloved Community"
Gracyn Doctor
Raymond Arsenault is the author of "John Lewis: In Search of the Beloved Community"

After the sit-ins came the Freedom Riders. These were a group of activists who worked to desegregate interstate bus travel.

Lewis and LaFayette were two of the original Freedom Riders, roommates, and “comrades in arms,” according to Arsenault. Before the official rides began, they went on their own impromptu freedom ride.

“Almost on a whim, they sat in the front of the bus, knowing the driver would object, but they figured they'd get away with it. And they sort of did,” Arsenault said. “But a couple of times, the driver got off the bus and made phone calls. They thought he was calling the Klan and they'd get ripped off out of their seats, but they didn't.”

In 1963, ahead of the March on Washington, at 23 years old, Lewis became the director of SNCC, and “one of the big six” as Arsenault put it. He was now bumping shoulders with Dr. King, Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Roy Wilkins (NAACP) and Jim Farmer (CORE). He becomes the youngest and most radical speaker of the march.

“We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We're tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you’ll holler “be patient.” How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now. We do not want to go to jail. But we will go to jail. Because this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace.”

That was part of Lewis’s speech at the march. He’s addressing a crown of nearly a quarter of a million of people at the age of 23.

Arsenault’s book details the chaos and violence that John and other civil rights advocates face as they pushed to desegregate lunch counters, buses and schools, and fought for voting rights. In late summer of 1963, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four girls and injuring 21 children.

In November of that year, John F. Kennedy was assassinated and SNCC staff members in the deep South suddenly felt more vulnerable. If a president could be killed, surely the same thing might happen to radical activists out in the field with little or no protection.

Then President Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act and activists continued voter registration efforts in Mississippi during 1964, the so-called “Freedom Summer,” but the violence continued. Three activists were murdered, their bodies found more than a month after they disappeared. And there were dozens of incidents, including shootings, beatings, church burnings, bombings and over 1,000 arrests.

The only reason the actual body count remained relatively low was the influence of the national newspaper and television reporters who fanned out across the state chronicling and exposing many of the white supremacist threats and acts of violence. By 1965, civil rights organizations focus their attention on Alabama. On March 3, Lewis is one of the leaders of a 600 Strong March that plan to go from Selma to Montgomery.

Lewis spoke to reporters from NBC, saying:

“We're marching today to dramatize to the nation, dramatize to the world, the hundreds and thousands of negros citizens of Alabama but particularly here in the Black Belt area, are denied the right to vote. We intend to march to Montgomery to present our grievances to Governor George C. Wallace.”

The marches only made it over the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the outskirts of town before they were beaten by Alabama State Troopers. In 2015, during the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Lewis said:

“17 of us were hospitalized that day. But we never became bitter or hostile. We kept believing that your truths we stood for would have the final say.”

Arsenault believes the original march was one of the most important moments of Lewis’s life.

“John had to recreate this scene many, many times in his life. And one only can wonder what it was like psychologically for him to do that, because as he said, I thought I was going to die,” he said.

Arsenault says later in life, after Lewis lost all his hair, scars and marks from the beatings he experienced could be seen on his scalp.

When asked about his final thoughts on Lewis, Arsenault said this:

“He was, I think, unquestionably the most unusual person that I ever had the pleasure to know and to meet. Almost certainly the greatest person in a fundamental sense of decency. And as one of his colleagues in Congress said, ‘he gave us everything and asked for nothing.’ That was kind of, I think, the best way to sum him up. I just don't know if we'll ever see his likes again.”

Updated: May 29, 2024 at 4:07 PM EDT
This story was updated to replace two sentences and quote from Arsenault with the following line: "Arsenault says later in life, after Lewis lost all his hair, scars and marks from the beatings he experienced could be seen on his scalp."
As the executive producer of WUSF's Florida Matters, I aim to create a show and podcast that makes all Floridians feel seen and heard. That's also my assignment as a producer for The Florida Roundup. In any role, my goal is always to amplify the voices often overlooked.
I am the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show Florida Matters, where I get to indulge my curiosity in people and explore the endlessly fascinating stories that connect this community.