John Lewis: Civil Rights Hero and Ally of the Jewish People
When I went to interview John Lewis in December of 2017 in his Congressional office about his relationship with the late civil rights lawyer Morris B. Abram for a biography I was writing of the Jewish civil rights leader, I was struck by the array of photographs highlighting the various stages of Lewis’ career as a leader of the movement.
I saw one of the 23-year-old Lewis standing with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bayard Rustin on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington. And there was, of course, the familiar photo of “the incident” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. It was there that Lewis fearlessly led the group of protesters in 1965 on behalf of voting rights, one that galvanized the nation after seeing his face bloodied by state troopers and county deputies.
But the one photo that Lewis seemed most proud of and insisted on pointing out to me was the one of him standing with the legendary figures of the movement beside President Lyndon Johnson in the White House while he signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, legislation that turned the tide of history on behalf of Black empowerment.
Voting rights had also been front and center in Morris Abram’s challenge of his native state’s notorious “county unit system,” an electoral scheme designed in the early 20th century largely to disenfranchise Black voters.
When he returned from his Rhodes Scholarship in England in 1949 to practice law in Atlanta, he began a 14-year campaign to have this discriminatory system overturned. Success came in 1963, when the Supreme Court upheld the ruling of a lower Federal court against that system when it established, for the very first time, the principle of “one person, one vote.”
After relating that story to Lewis, one he remembered quite well, he told me why the photo with President Johnson meant so much to him.
In the mid-1960s, as chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Lewis faced an insurgency led by Black separatist Stokely Carmichael. As Lewis told me, Carmichael and his followers “said that I was not ‘black enough’ and they needed to tell Lyndon Johnson where to go. And there was that picture of President Johnson presenting me with one of the pens that he had used to sign the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965. [They said] I was too close to Lyndon Johnson; too close to Dr. King. And I loved Dr. King, and I admired President Johnson. I had a problem with the war, but I admired him. And I thought the speech he gave on March 16, 1965, when he said ‘We Shall Overcome’ was one of the great speeches. And I quote from time to time what he said.”
Carmichael succeeded in wresting away the leadership position at SNCC by telling his followers that Blacks needed to organize politically along racial lines. He ridiculed the concept of racial integration, questioned the value of non-violence, and sided with those who argued that whites should be expelled from SNCC. As his militancy grew, so did the stridency of his anti-Jewish rhetoric.
Carmichael’s militant approach was opposed by Reverend King, Bayard Rustin, and John Lewis, all of whom believed that the only way for Blacks to achieve political success in a pluralistic society was to build multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalitions. When the Black-Jewish coalition splintered in the late 1960s, these same civil rights leaders struggled to keep it together, remaining steadfast in their revulsion at anti-Jewish bigotry and their support for the State of Israel.
The year after Lewis was expelled from his post as chairman of SNCC and replaced by Carmichael, he went to work for the New York-based Field Foundation, whose chairman was Morris Abram, an association he never forgot.
After reminiscing about the partnership between Jews and Blacks, when I asked Lewis to sum up Morris Abram’s contributions to the civil rights movement, he said, “Morris was just one of those individuals that you had to know if you wanted to get something accomplished. Check with Morris Abram. He was a pillar.”
And so it was with Abram’s friend John Lewis. A genuine pillar who made our world a better place.
David Lowe is the author of Touched with Fire: Morris B. Abram and the Battle Against Racial and Religious Discrimination (Potomac Books, 2019), winner of the 2019 Jewish Book Award for best biography.