Civil Rights leader John Lewis kicks off Racial Justice Week

[Washington Window] Forty years after his tragic death, the unmistakable cadence of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice sounded again in Washington National Cathedral.

More than 1,600 people gathered on March 30 for the opening event of Racial Justice and Reconciliation Week, held in honor of King’s witness and ministry, sat in silence as an excerpt from his final Sunday sermon crackled over the sound system.

“One day we will have to stand before the God of history and we will talk in terms of things we’ve done. Yes, we will be able to say we built gargantuan bridges to span the seas, we built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. Yes, we made our submarines to penetrate oceanic depths. We brought into being many other things with our scientific and technological power.

“It seems that I can hear the God of history saying, ‘That was not enough! But I was hungry, and ye fed me not. I was naked, and ye clothed me not. I was devoid of a decent sanitary house to live in, and ye provided no shelter for me. And consequently, you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness. If ye do it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye do it unto me.’ That’s the question facing America today.”

While the recording was a little ragged in places, King’s message, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” was still resonant, said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who spoke about the struggle for Civil Rights at a Sunday forum and then preached at the service.

“The sermon [King] gave on March 31, 1968 is still so timely, so relevant and fresh,” Lewis said. “If I had simply read the same sermon in print, in preaching, it would still be fresh – revolutionary.”

“The power of that sermon and the power of that moment linger on in this Cathedral,” said Cathedral Dean Samuel Lloyd III. “We wanted to begin [the week] at the heart of the matter, with one of the heroes of the Civil Rights movement.”

Lewis, born in 1940 to sharecroppers from Troy, Ala., was the youngest of the Civil Rights leaders. He was arrested more than 40 times for his participation in sit-ins and Freedom Rides and received beatings from which he still bears scars.

During lunch counter sit-ins, he recalled, “people would put cigarettes out in our hair, pull us off the stools. But we maintained the principles of nonviolence. We could forgive.”

How?

“It’s the power of the Holy Spirit,” Lewis said. “The power of God Almighty.”

He described his adherence to the principles of nonviolence as being “not a tactic, but a way of life.”

“A tactic is kind of like a faucet,” he explained. “You can turn it on and turn it off. The best thing to do is just love everybody.”

To do that, Lewis said he holds to the idea that “there’s a spark of divinity, a spark of the divine, in every person.” He has even imagined his tormentors as tiny babies, innocents who came into the world as children of God.

It hasn’t always been easy, he said: “But I made up my mind. I had what you might call an executive session with myself. For me it is one of those immutable principles that you cannot give up on.”

Lewis has held to that principle during his 21 years in the House of Representatives, where he is a sponsor of legislation such as the Religious Freedom and Peace Tax bill, which would enable conscientious objectors to “continue to pay their share [of taxes] but it would go into a fund that would be used for humanitarian purposes and not for war.”

“It may take a long time before that day comes, but I would like to see it happen while I’m in Congress,” he said.

Lewis recently made headlines when, as a former aide to the Clinton Cabinet, he withdrew his support for Sen. Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign and announced he would be casting his superdelegate vote for Sen. Barack Obama.

Referring to Obama’s March 22 call for a dialogue on race, he said: “It’s important and necessary that we have this dialogue on race so we can lay it out. … I think it’s important as a nation and a people that we transcend the issue of race. We are one people, we are one family, we are one nation. We must all have a place at the table. …

“I really believe that should Sen. Obama receive the nomination of the Democratic Party, he will be elected president. I believe it will serve to send the strongest possible message, not just to the cities of the United States but to the cities of the world that America can be looked upon as a model of diversity.”

Later, in his sermon, Lewis spoke of the Beloved Community.

“If our goal is a beloved community of peace, love and justice, then our methods cannot include war, hate and bitterness against our fellow man,” he said. “We need to teach our children the way of peace, the way of love. There’s too much violence in our society. We need to teach our children to love and not to hate.”

First appeared in Washington Window, Volume 77, No. 5, May 2008 as

Civil Rights leader kicks off Racial Justice Week

Rep. John Lewis remembers his days with King and shares his commitment to peace