On Saturday night, I sat at the foot of my mother’s bed in a dark pierced only by the dull blue glow of the television screen, watching Don Lemon report on Congressman John Lewis’ death. I was silent. My eyes strained against the harsh light of the screen, listening to John Lewis’ audio clips, watching a grand slideshow of action shots from his protests and speeches, and observing countless people reflecting on his legacy. Here was this man who was once hated for devoting himself to social equality, now remembered as a legendary champion of justice.
I wasn’t alive to see Dr. King or Rosa Parks at the height of their powers. My childhood was typified by the injustice of young Black bodies expiring at the hands of the police without consequence. I came to expect that one day, at any given moment, and for any reason, my life would be whisked away. Perhaps, if I was lucky enough, my death would catch national attention and my name would become a rallying cry: #JusticeForCaleb. Then, after a few protests, tweets and memorials, people would return to their lives and I would disappear forever.
But John Lewis was my link to the past. He was a leader in a movement I had only read about in school. According to my textbook, he was a part of that group of mighty fighting people in the ‘50s and ‘60s that championed goodness and justice, achieving swift success. John Lewis was a symbol of better days, back when movements were simple. The good guys and bad guys were clearly defined, and John was one of the good guys.
That was a much-needed departure from my muddied reality. I went to one of the most prestigious high schools in Illinois, but got uneasy stares from white people on my train ride from school because of my dark skin and nappy hair. Barack Obama was our nation’s first Black president, but my Black neighborhood still lacked economic opportunities. Chicago Public Schools’ graduation rates for Black Students were climbing, but a 17-year old Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by Chicago police.
Did racism still exist?
For a long time, John Lewis was my simple answer. He and his buddies beat back the evil villains years ago and vanquished racism, huzzah!
Then, when I was 12 years old, Mike Brown’s death sparked nationwide action, and I noticed frequent comparisons between the protests happening at that time and the civil rights movement decades ago. The protesters in Ferguson were seen as dangerous and irresponsible, but from my understanding, civil rights leaders were peaceful and heroic. Something wasn't right.
After spending years watching documentaries, reading books about social movements and relentlessly questioning history in school, I realized just how much time and perspective shaped our view of the past. Congressman Lewis’ participation in the civil rights movement wasn’t palatable at the time. For many, him, and the movement as a whole, engendered hatred, anger and fear. The organizations Lewis was a member of were demonized by segregationists, he took beatings while on freedom rides and he was arrested more times than he could count, all while fighting for equality.
But as the years progressed and the majority opinion on segregation shifted, white Americans memorialized their former agitators and adversaries as heroes and hope-filled symbols. Congressman Lewis formerly being viewed as a villain by whites across the nation has all but been forgotten. The widespread disdain for the civil rights movement he was a part of is no longer mentioned.
In response to the death of George Floyd, I have taken to the streets to protest, and it has been both disheartening and ironic to see a mural just a few blocks from my house vandalized, and to hear Black Lives Matter described as a "symbol of hate" by the president of the United States. Calls for justice have been largely dismissed and every day white Americans have reacted to recent demonstrations with fear and anger.
But as I watched the coverage of John Lewis’ passing, I couldn’t help but look to the future and wonder: how will our movement be remembered?