Billy Clubs, Attack Dogs, And Firehoses: John Lewis, America's Conscience

America has always had moral heroes who put their lives ahead of themselves for the greater good.
01/16/2017 10:21 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2017
Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Tonight is the end of seven days of historic experiences and powerful emotions. Last Monday, I spent two hours quietly ― and humbly ― walking through the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Time seemed to stand still as I emotionally ricocheted from exhibit to exhibit. I found it hard to leave one exhibit area for the next, as each one was riveting and emotionally challenging. I was not prepared for the responses that my five senses delivered. And I was with a small group so I sought the safety of dark corners so my tears would not be seen. (Unfortunately, I still carry the genes of a New England Anglo-Saxon Protestant who was taught that men don’t cry.)

I grew up watching the civil rights demonstrations on TV. My grandfather was an Episcopal minister in Vermont and my father was a history teacher in New England whose expertise was the Civil War. Both of them not only ingrained in me an insatiable curiosity about history, but they also instilled a commitment to justice, fairness, and, on my best days, kindness.

Among the events that are forever etched in my memory banks are:

· The March on Washington and Dr. King’s declaration, “I Have a Dream.”

· “Bloody Sunday” in March 1965 when the bravest soldiers of conscience I have ever witnessed accepted the blows of Billy clubs, the teeth of dogs and the torrent of fire hoses―children included.

· Our nation not only mourning the assassination of Martin Luther King, but many communities reacting with anger to his killing. I was in Washington when a large portion of the city burned. I was staying at the National Cathedral in D.C. and thus could see the fire and smoke coming from many neighborhoods in the nation’s capital.

· The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I was standing on the lawn across from the steps to the Capitol and within earshot of Roger Mudd, the CBS Correspondent reporting the historic news.

· The discovery a few years ago of a wooden box taken from the attic of my ancestors in rural New Hampshire in which a small pamphlet aged to a brittle yellow listed the names of five people, five slaves, they owned. I was inexcusably unaware that there were slaves in New Hampshire.

So last Monday, I entered the National Museum of African American History and Culture with a curiosity and an eagerness to learn rather than any expectation of being deeply moved, as I was from the moment I entered the first exhibit. At the beginning of my all-too-short journey in the museum ― the average stay is six hours ― I found myself wiping tears at an alarming rate. It took nothing more than a few small plaques with the name of a ship, the number of slaves that were crammed into its hold followed by the number of slaves that survived ― generally a fairly large gap. And to know that many of those kidnapped from their lands were babies and young children. It triggered something very deep and powerful within me and certainly connected me back to my childhood and young teens when I witnessed the bravery of men, women and children trying to gain the rights that our Bill of Rights and our Constitution promised them centuries ago.

They described their training in non-violence, which meant they were not to even raise an arm to deflect the blow of a wooden stick on their skull or shoulder or back.

In 2000, I was honored to join the Faith and Politics Institute on a civil rights pilgrimage that was led by John Lewis to Selma and Montgomery. We walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with President Clinton and scores of activists from those days. We sat in the pews of The First Baptist Church on North Ripley Street in Montgomery, where not too many decades before over 3,000 white people threatened to set fire to the church and immolate over 1500 people inside. I listened intently to eyewitnesses share their fear, their courage and their faith. We visited the jail cells where Dr. King and John Lewis and Bernard Lafayette, and many other civil rights activists spent time. I listened to Congressman Lewis and his colleagues speak of what happened and how they kept their spirits alive.

But the most extraordinary moment of the trip for me occurred when we listened to John Lewis and several other leaders speak of “Bloody Sunday,” when Billy clubs, dogs and fire hoses tried to stop the march to and of justice. Lewis and the others were nearly killed that day. Congressman Lewis, who has a very quiet and unassuming voice and soft demeanor, casually showed us where he fell to his knees and was beaten, as did some of his colleagues, who experienced the same violence. They spoke precisely of where on their bodies they were bitten by dogs, or how their eyeballs were almost forced out of the sockets with the high-intensity hoses, and how they felt they were going to die as the wooden bats and clubs crashed onto their skulls and the blood blinded them. They described their training in non-violence, which meant they were NOT to even raise an arm to deflect the blow of a wooden stick on their skull or shoulder or back.

Frequently throughout the trip, John Lewis and other leaders of those days pointed out that the people they felt immense empathy for were the whites who came down from the north to support the Civil Rights Movement. It was said that these Northern whites were the particular scourge of the Southern whites, often incurring worse beatings than the local blacks.

But what I carry with me to this day is that throughout this journey with John Lewis and his colleagues, through these scenes of horrific violence, there was never a moment of bitterness, anger or hatred. Only forgiveness, a profound abiding sense of forgiveness. I will never forget this because it goes against my default position ― I still find it hard to forgive certain people in my life.

Then on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of last week, both in person and on television, I watched the hearings of the various Trump nominees, including Senator Sessions for Attorney General. And I witnessed the same John Lewis with whom I shared that pilgrimage almost two decades ago testify against Sessions whose undeniable racist remarks of the past are unacceptable even to the forgiving soul of Mr. Lewis, easily the most forgiving human being I’ve ever encountered.

And the same John Lewis who almost had to give his life to defend the Bill of Rights and the Constitution that commands that we are all equal under the law.

And then on Saturday, I read Donald Trump’s tweet attacking John Lewis (America’s most powerful moral and ethical conscience) for rejecting the legitimacy of Mr. Trump’s upcoming Presidency. As we all know now, Mr. Lewis has decided not to attend the inaugural, the first time in his elected history.

A couple of months ago, Warren Buffet said that we all should respect Trump as the next President-Elect. I heartily disagree. Respecting a man and respecting an office are two different things. I have enormous respect for the Office of the President ― I’ve worked in the White House ― because I respect the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and all those Americans who have sacrificed their lives on foreign soil and on America’s lands to protect our rights ― the rights of everyone.

I can’t get past the President-Elect’s degradation of women, mocking of a physically challenged reporter, and now attacking John Lewis so gratuitously ― and ignorantly.

I hope that Donald Trump is able to rebuild American infrastructure and create vast numbers of jobs doing so. I hope he can bring some stability and peace in the Mideast and around the world and build a solid economic agenda for America as it moves into even more uncertain times with automation, an aging population, the rise of Russia, China and India, and amidst an exponentially growing global population as our planet’s resources dwindle. I want this because I care about all of our citizens even those who attacked our current President because the color of his skin or the spelling of his name.

I can’t get past the President-Elect’s degradation of women, mocking of a physically challenged reporter, and now attacking John Lewis so gratuitously ― and ignorantly. I understand to some degree the psychology and pathology of why Donald Trump can’t stop himself, but that doesn’t excuse it. And although I disagree with John Lewis about the illegitimacy of Trump’s Presidency, I will always defer to his moral and ethical compass because it’s rooted not in theory, not in the philosophy of others, but in literally the blood, his own blood of practice.

America has always had moral heroes who put their lives ahead of themselves for the greater good. I witnessed those heroes in the 1960s and have been honored and humbled to witness others—and even to know many. Now it is time for people who care about America and about ensuring that future John Lewis’s know that they will never again have to stand-alone.

God bless you John Lewis and all those who’ve come before to make it possible for me even to write this.

Peter Emerson has worked in senior positions in the White House and in the U.S. Senate over the past forty years. He has served on three Presidential Commissions/Committees under five Presidents. In this last election, Peter worked to assist voter registration and get out the vote efforts in African American and Hispanic communities in the Southwest.

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