The Civil Rights Movement was successful because of the moral rightness of its cause, the life sacrifices of many American Black and American White civil rights soldiers, and the willing to be killed courage of 6 brave American Black LITERAL leaders, not symbolic leaders, not self-proclaimed leaders, but 6 individuals who directed organizations whose mission was the advancement of civil rights for all people. Unfortunately, the last of those 6 brave leaders, a leader to humble to ever proclaim himself a leader, died last week.
John Robert Lewis who was once called a “living Saint” by Time magazine was known to most as the “conscience of the U.S. Congress”, was known lovingly as “the boy from Troy” to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but due to his closeness to my family, he was known to me as “Uncle John”. My grandfather, Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., was his pastor and in that capacity married Uncle John and his now-deceased wife Aunt Lillian. Aunt Lillian threw my sister, Dr. Angela Farris Watkins, her sweet 16 birthday party, Uncle John continued to be close to my family long after the 1968 assassination of Dr. King, the first person to introduce Uncle John to our family.
Most times when people assign complimentary labels to people they are flattering exaggerations but in Uncle John’s case, he truly was the conscience of the U.S. Congress always urging it to do the morally right thing, and he was the only individual in our midst that walked, talked, and acted as a living Saint. My aunt, Coretta Scott King, said “ I think he was chosen by God for leadership “. But there was one other label assigned to Uncle John that is complementary but simultaneously is an understatement of the facts. The other label Uncle John was referred to as was “the last living speaker from the great March On Washington”.
This was factually correct and very honorable but an understatement. Because Uncle John was not just the last living speaker he was the last living formal LEADER from the March On Washington. And the last living formal LEADER of the Civil Rights Movement. He was often mentioned in the same breath as other proclaimed civil rights leaders like Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, or Medgar Evers, but these 3 men were not formal leaders they were paid, lieutenants. In the case of Young and Jackson to the leader Dr. King in the case of Evers to the leader Roy Wilkins former leader of the NAACP.
Uncle John was a leader in his own right as Chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Lives Matter contingent of its day and one of the “ Big Six “ civil rights organizations that organized and staged the historic March On Washington. Uncle John’s formal leadership of SNCC has not been a traditional point of focus, one reason was because of the way it ended. Dr. King’s SCLC was the institutional parent of SNCC, so much so that in its early days some referred to SNCC as the “youth wing of SCLC”, but because Dr. King not only gave the college student group monetary resources, public support, and advice but also the space to do their own thing, SNCC was able to establish itself as an independent force for non-violent change.
Under Uncle John’s SNCC leadership the Selma Voting Rights campaign and the Freedom Summer project in Mississippi successfully occurred. Unfortunately, the glory days for SNCC came to an end in 1966 when violence provocateur and the author of the divisive rhetoric “Black Power” and “burn baby burn”, phrases both Dr. King and Uncle John refused to use, Stokely Carmichael overthrew, in coup-like fashion, Uncle John’s leadership of SNCC due to his commitment to Dr. King’s “Beloved Community” and its non-violence principles. Carmichael’s first move as the new leader was to ask all white students to exit their membership in SNCC.
The other and main reason why Uncle John’s SNCC leadership is not a focal point is because of the HUMILITY of the man. Whenever you were in the presence of Uncle John you felt an I’m your servant vibe emanating from him and not an I’m your leader vibe. But Uncle John was a leader in every sense of the burden and responsibility that it entailed during the 1960s, a time of life-threatening non-violent direct action to force change in America. The burden of principled non-violent leadership they both endured was responsible for the unique relationship that existed between Uncle John and Dr. King.
Lieutenants can sleep at night because they only carry out decisions their leaders make, leaders like Uncle John and Dr. King lost sleep many nights because decisions they made could mean life or death for people. Uncle John rose to formal leadership in part because of his willingness to non-violently subject his own life and body to violent abuse and beatings many, many times on the front battle lines of the Civil Rights Movement. He like Dr. King was the true people’s servant willing to die to free America from the shackles of vote suppression, hate, and bigotry, their style of sacrificial leadership is what made the Civil Rights Movement the success it was.
As usual Dr. King’s wisdom is as relevant today as it was in his lifetime. He told us “ If you want to be important — wonderful. If you want to be great — wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s your new definition of greatness — it means that everybody can be great because everybody can serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know the second law of thermodynamics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love “.
Whether Dr. King realized it or not he was describing John Lewis the greatest servant among us all. Because Uncle John was a unique American leader with a heart full of grace generated by a love for serving all people. Last week the last true leader of the 2nd greatest era in American history, the Civil Rights Movement, the living Saint John Robert Lewis was called home to heaven. So that his soul can receive the glory of God it earned while selflessly serving us here on earth.
His last official act as the last living leader of the Civil Rights Movement, was to act as a presiding congressional officer last December while the U.S. House voted to restore the Voting Rights Act’s enforcement power. It’s now left to all Americans of goodwill to force Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans to follow suit and do the same. So that Uncle John’s legacy can receive the glory here on earth that it deserves and has earned through his servant leadership to all Americans!!!
Isaac Newton Farris Jr. is the nephew of Martin Luther King, Jr. and serves as Senior Fellow at the King Center. Growing up in one of the most socially and politically active families has given him a unique perspective on current events. Drop by his website for straight talk free of one-sided political spin.
Originally published at https://isaacnewtonfarris.com on July 21, 2020.