Photo by United States Congress, Office of Nancy Pelosi on Wikimedia Commons

John Lewis’s Quest for the “Beloved Community”

John Lewis: In Search of the Beloved Community is the first full-length biography of civil rights hero and congressman John Lewis. Author Raymond Arsenault talks with us about his research process for the book and discusses Lewis’s enduring legacy.

This interview with Raymond Arsenault has been adapted from a Shelf Awareness feature with Shahina Piyarali. Reproduced with permission.

What inspired you to write a biography of John Lewis?

RA: I became fascinated by John Lewis’s life and career as a civil rights activist during the eight years (1998-2006) that I worked on my book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, published in 2006 by Oxford University Press. This fascination grew as I got to know him personally during and after my first interview with him in 2000. I was surprised to learn that he had never been the subject of a biography, and that he had received little scholarly attention from historians. I devoted considerable attention to him as I researched and wrote Freedom Riders, but I became convinced that his critical role in the evolution of the nonviolent direct-action phase of the struggle for civil rights during the 1960s, combined with his later career as congressman, merited a full-scale biographical treatment. To my mind, he is one of the most important historical figures in modern American history, and I became increasingly aware of this as I probed deeper into his life and times.

Is there anything about Lewis that took you by surprise during your research?

RA: What surprised me the most was the depth and consistency of his commitment to nonviolence as a way of life. In a long life that involved many complex issues and personal challenges—including numerous arrests and beatings—he never wavered in his dedication to the core principles of love, peace, compassion, and forgiveness. The search for the “Beloved Community” guided his personal and public life for more than six decades. No matter how difficult the circumstances, he—like his mentors Martin Luther King Jr. and James Lawson—always kept his “eyes on the prize.” To me, his moral and physical courage reflected an extraordinary inner strength and clarity of vision rarely seen in the real world. When I started my research, I already suspected that his character was admirable, but I now realize I had no idea of the actual depth of his passion for justice, equality, and the values and promise of a “Beloved Community.”

You share a moving anecdote from The Oprah Winfrey Show where Lewis, in a breathtaking moment of grace, embraces his former Ku Klux Klan tormentor, Elwin Wilson. What role did you play in facilitating this on-air reconciliation?

RA: Per Oprah Winfrey’s determination to leaven even the most troubling of subjects with a certain amount of upbeat material, the producers of The Oprah Winfrey Show sought a dramatic story involving reconciliation. I suggested to them that the most obvious choice was Elwin Wilson’s transformation and request for forgiveness, and John Lewis’s compassion for and friendship with one of the men who beat him in Rock Hill, S.C., in May 1961. But, of course, I had no idea of what might happen if Mr. Wilson actually appeared on the show. The drama that unfolded—with John Lewis reaching out to grab his struggling friend’s hand and proclaiming in words loud enough for everyone to hear, “He’s my brother”—took me and everyone else by surprise. I will remember this spontaneous act of compassion for as long as I live. On that afternoon the true greatness of John Lewis was revealed for all to see.

What is the long-term impact of Lewis’s lessons in forgiveness and moral fortitude on today’s Congress?

RA: Judging Lewis’s long-term impact on Congress is virtually impossible at this point since it has only been a little over three years since his death. I think we can say that there is little evidence that his legacy has had much influence on Republican representatives and senators. On the Democratic side, however, the situation looks much more hopeful. Lewis remains a revered figure among many Democratic representatives and senators, especially among the 55 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a number of whom regard him as an indispensable mentor. While no one in the Congress has earned a reputation for moral courage equivalent to Lewis’s, there are a number of progressive Democrats who try to live up to his high standards of decency and integrity. Indeed, Lewis’s legacy becomes obvious whenever Congress turns to the ongoing struggle over voting rights.

If he were with us today, what advice do you think Lewis would share with President Biden about the domestic and foreign challenges facing the U.S.?

RA: If Lewis were alive today, he would urge President Biden: to be very restrained in his reliance on American military power; to emphasize the cause of human rights above all others; to avoid chauvinistic declarations of American cultural and political superiority; to keep the entire world in his vision, valuing the interests and perspectives of all nations, rich and poor; to promote tolerance of others and respectful dialogue among political opponents; to dedicate himself to environmental health and justice; to defend and protect the Constitutional rights of all Americans; to do everything he can to protect voting rights and advance the nation’s democratic traditions and aspirations; to promote immigrants’ rights, stressing the importance of treating refugees with respect and compassion; and to promote the ideals of the “Beloved Community” at home and abroad.

Raymond Arsenault is the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History Emeritus at the University of South Florida. He is the author of several award-winning books on civil rights history, including Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial JusticeThe Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America and Arthur Ashe: A Life.

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