My memory of Representative John Lewis, an icon of the 1960s Civil Rights movement and a decades-long member of Congress, is from 2012. Lewis was at a Democratic party event and he related a story of someone recently coming to his office on Capitol Hill, and apologizing for having beaten him up many decades earlier – all the way in 1961.
To put that in context, in 1958, a Howard University student was changing busses in Richmond, Virginia and ordered a sandwich in a “whites only” restaurant in the bus station there. He was arrested and fined ten dollars. The young man appealed his conviction, and eventually the famed lawyer Thurgood Marshall argued his case before the Supreme Court of the United States. In December of 1960 the Supreme Court decided the case Boynton v. Virginia, ordering Virginia to return the ten dollars on the basis of a 1935 amendment to the Interstate Commerce Act which forbade discrimination by bus companies.
As a practical matter, however, no federal, state, or local governments were enforcing that decision in much of the violently racist South, which still held strong to Jim Crow-era methods of brutal social, political, and economic segregation. So a group of activists, including then 21 year old John Lewis, travelled to the South to try to challenge the Kennedy administration to enforce their rights and they were met by violent mobs.
A lot has changed since the days when so many places had the hallmarks of segregation unashamedly displayed in public places, separating water fountains, bathrooms, restaurant seating, train and bus cars, and so much more. It is a blessing to have children in this country who don’t remember the unabashedly obvious racism that dictated every facet of public life, but it is important to remember that we aren’t so far removed from that shameful time.
I feel silly even writing that when I was a child, in much of my country a Black person was legally forbidden to do basic things like sitting next to a white person, being present in a dining room where white people were being served, touching the same bible in a courtroom that is used to swear in white witnesses, walking in a park where white children played, marrying a white person, and a multitude of other indignities, large and small. The fact that these indignities are banished to my own foggy memory is a testament to the bravery of men like John Lewis.
I do not know what is like to be a Black person — to live as a second class citizen in my own country. And I know that while many of the specific points I listed have been addressed, many of my Black neighbors still feel like second class citizens because they are still subjected to the effects of pernicious, prevalent racism in our everyday institutions.
Our nation is now at a crossroads. Americans are deciding whether the path to prosperity is to get ahead by pushing other people down, or to get ahead by lifting all people up.
Have we made progress? Yes. Have we made enough progress? No.
When will I be able to tell a taxicab driver where to drop me off by saying “please pull over right where the police officer is standing” without the driver becoming scared?
When will my Black neighbors have a talk with their adolescent sons and tell them what my parents told me, which was to find a police officer and ask for help if I got lost?
When will Black high school students walk around on the Upper East Side, and feel no more need than their white classmates to wear jackets festooned with the name of their school?
When will Black people walk into stores on Madison Avenue and be treated with the same polite deference as are their white neighbors?
In short, when will Black people be able to feel safe and secure in their own country, to enjoy the basic liberties and security that were promised to them – and denied for centuries – from the beginning? John Lewis’s work was so important to end one chapter of this country’s violent racism, but to honor his legacy and his spirit, we must take up the fight to close the book for good.