John Lewis Was Not Always Old

Ode to Ella Baker” by Lisa McLymont (Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

A few weeks ago, John Lewis put out a press release announcing to all that he is undergoing treatment for stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He later sent out a tweet, lifting up one of the best lines in that press statement:

I have been in some kind of fight – for freedom, equality, basic human rights – for nearly my entire life. I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now.

Lewis’ summary of his life is not hyperbole. He is the last living member of the Big Six, the speakers at the 1963 March on Washington for civil rights, and now is a senior member of Congress. But it’s important to remember that John Lewis was not always old. He was just 23 when he spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as the president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) – an organization he co-founded three years earlier at age 20 – and at 21 was one of the original Freedom Riders.

Let me repeat it again: John Lewis was not always old. He has always been a fighter for civil rights, but he has not always been old.

In 2005, historian David McCullough noted how we as a society perceive great leaders in a speech about the Founders:

We tend to see them—Adams, Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Rush, George Washington—as figures in a costume pageant; that is often the way they’re portrayed. And we tend to see them as much older than they were because we’re seeing them in the portraits by Gilbert Stuart and others when they were truly the Founding Fathers—when they were president or chief justice of the Supreme Court and their hair, if it hadn’t turned white, was powdered white. We see the awkward teeth. We see the elder statesmen.

At the time of the Revolution, they were all young. It was a young man’s–young woman’s cause. George Washington took command of the Continental Army in the summer of 1775 at the age of 43. He was the oldest of them. Adams was 40. Jefferson was all of 33 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Benjamin Rush—who was the leader of the antislavery movement at the time, who introduced the elective system into higher education in this country, who was the first to urge the humane treatment of patients in mental hospitals—was 30 years old when he signed the Declaration of Independence. Furthermore, none of them had any prior experience in revolutions; they weren’t experienced revolutionaries who’d come in to take part in this biggest of all events. They were winging it. They were improvising.

This is not unique to the American Founders. Historians of social change who pay attention to the leaders of these movements often see the same thing. For example . . .

  • When Martin Luther King, Jr. led the Montgomery Bus boycott in 1955, he was just shy of 25 years old. When he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he was 35, and when was assassinated on the balcony of a Memphis hotel, he was only 39.
  • When Thurgood Marshall argued on behalf of racial justice in Shelley v. Kramer before SCOTUS in 1948 – six years before he did the same in Brown v. Board of Education – Marshall was 40 years old. He won both cases, the former striking down restricted housing covenants and the latter doing away with the pernicious “separate but equal” doctrine that was at the heart of Jim Crow.
  • When Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, and Nelson Mandela co-founded the ANC Youth League in 1944, they were 31, 26, and 25 years old respectively.
  • When Dr. Paul Volberding and nurse Cliff Morrison pushed against incredible medical and social prejudices to organize the nation’s first AIDS unit at San Francisco General Hospital in 1983 as the AIDS crisis continued to spiral out of control, they were 33 and 31 respectively.
  • When Gavin Newsom (then mayor of San Francisco) ordered the San Francisco clerk’s office to issue marriage licenses for couples regardless of the genders involved on February 14, 2004, he was 36.
  • When Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, exposing the ugly underside of the meatpacking industry and spurring social change with regard government oversight and regulation of food and drugs, he was 28.
  • When anti-lynching crusader and journalist Ida B. Wells published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases in 1892, she was 30.
  • When Elizabeth Cady Stanton co-organized the Seneca Falls Conference on Women’s Rights in 1848, she was 32.

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that the leaders of social change movements are more likely to be young than to be old.

After Lewis made his announcement, Marcy tweeted out her reactions to the news, including this:

Say a prayer–or whatever you do instead–to give John Lewis strength for this fight. But also commit to raise up a young moral leader who has inspired you. We can’t rely on 80 and 90 year olds to lead us in the troubled days going forward.

I’ve been chewing on that tweet for the better part of a month.

What immediately went through my head upon reading that tweet was the name Ella Baker, one of the less well-known leaders in the civil rights movement. In a story for the Tavis Smiley Show on PRI about the founding of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), John Lewis tells of Ella’s powerful role:

Martin Luther King, Jr. was so impressed by the actions of the students [and their non-violent lunchcounter sit-ins], says Lewis, that he asked a young woman by the name of Ella Baker to organize a conference, inviting students from 58 colleges and universities.

“More than 300 people showed up at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, where SNCC was born,” said Lewis. “It was Easter weekend, 1960.”

Baker, considered by many as an unsung hero of the civil rights movement, was a “brilliant” radical who spurred on the creation of SNCC as an independent organization, says Lewis.

“She was a fiery speaker, and she would tell us to ‘organize, organize; agitate, agitate! Do what you think is right. Go for it!’ Dr. King wanted her to make SNCC the youth arm of his organization. But Ella Baker said we should be independent … and have our own organization.”

While the SNCC was deeply inspired by Dr. King and the SCLC, or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the students in the organization didn’t always see eye-to-eye with SCLC leadership.

“We had a lot of young women, and SNCC didn’t like the idea of the male chauvinism that existed in the SCLC,” says Lewis. “The SCLC was dominated by primarily black Baptist Ministers. And these young women did all the work and they had been the head of their local organizations.”

I’m not sure where Smiley got the phrasing about Ella Baker being “a young woman” when this all happened, as she was 55 years old in 1960 and King was only 30. But Ella did exactly what Marcy was talking about in that tweet. When she saw an opening to act, she helped raise up hundreds of young moral leaders, and she helped them most by encouraging them to act out of their own gifts and strengths and not by tying themselves to the approaches of older leaders.

Which brings me to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In the days following the massacre at MSD, the students there took matters into their own hands, rather than waiting for their elders to act. These are kids who grew up entirely in the post-Columbine High School shooting world, where active shooter drills were a regular part of school life. (I’m old: the only drills we had were “duck and cover” for a nuclear attack and “head for the hallway or basement” for tornadoes.) With each new shooting, they saw the same script written by the elders play out each time – thoughts and prayers for the victims, debate over gun laws, and nothing changes. They saw it happen around the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando a year and a half earlier. Talk, talk, talk and nothing changes.

This time, it wasn’t the elders running the show, however. It was Emma Gonzales, live on every cable network, who called BS on the NRA and the legislators who were intimidated by them. It was Cameron Kasky who gathered and organized his classmates to make this a movement. It was David Hogg and a dozen others, a hundred others, who did interviews, organized demonstrations, and the 1001 other things to give their work power. They reached out to other teens affected by gun violence, especially teens of color, to amplify the common message demanding change. They became a force to be reckoned with, not only in Tallahassee where they actually got gun laws changed, but in DC and around the country.

Behind these students, though, were their teachers. These are the folks who nourished the gifts of research and organization, of public speaking and political organizing in these young people. There were parents and other adults, who took their cues from the teens and did the things that you need someone over 21 to do, like sign rental bus agreements, for example. It is clear, though, that the moral leaders are the teens, with the elders in supporting roles.

Then there’s Greta Thunberg, relentlessly pushing the elders in seats of power to take action on the climate emergency gripping our planet.  Her messages are always a version of “This is not about me and my knowledge; it’s about the scientists and their knowledge – and they say we are going to burn the planet down if things don’t change fast.” She points to data, and forces her hearers to look at it. She may have gotten attention early on because of her youth (“O look at that cute little girl, doing cute little things and trying to get politicians to act”), but being a cute little girl doing cute little things doesn’t get you seat at the table at Davos. No, she got her seat at the tables of the powerful by being the young person who said over and over and over again that the emperors, the presidents, the corporate titans, and the powers of the planet aren’t wearing any clothes.

Just like young John Lewis.

The other part of Greta’s “It’s not about me” messaging is that she has sought out and nurtured other young people around the world, who have been organizing in their communities while she was at work in Sweden. She met Lakota activist Tokata Iron Eyes, who invited her to Standing Rock to see the work they are doing. Thunberg not only accepted, but eagerly lent her support to their work, not least of which came because of her larger media profile. When she spoke at Davos, it was as part of a panel of other young climate activists from Puerto Rico, southern Africa, and Canada.

Like the MSD students, Greta has passion for her activism, a data-driven focus that she hope can break through the cynicism and self-centeredness of world leaders, and a skill at building alliances with other like minded folks. And like the MSD students, people with power are listening — and are beginning to want to hear more. While Steve Mnuchen (following the lead of Donald Trump) mocked Thunberg for her youth, another world leader had a different reaction:

Angela Merkel, though, spoke warmly about the work of the new generation of climate activists.

“The impatience of our young people is something that we should tap,” the German chancellor said. In a special address to the WEF, Merkel called for more international cooperation to tackle climate change.

“I am totally convinced that the price of inaction will be far higher than the price of action,” she declared.

Over the last month, I’ve been looking at and interacting with the teenagers in my life a little bit differently, a little more intentionally, thanks in part to Marcy’s tweet. You see, one of those teens may just be another John Lewis, and I’d dearly love to be another Ella Baker.

30 replies
  1. e.a.f. says:

    When starting to read this, my mind did wander and thought of Greta Thunberg.
    Younger people don’t have the concerns regarding what about the opinions of others or the impact on their careers. They haven’t started them. They’re doing what they think is right.

    When I see shots of older people who were active in early fights for social justice when they were young, I remember they weren’t always old. As you write, John Lewis wasn’t always old. Martin Luther King was always young. IF we wait for older people to make change, we will never have change, they are hampered by their lives. Young people just go out and do it.

    In the upcoming American federal election expect to see many of these young people out leading the way and those running for office might want to give it some thought.

    For those of you who “believe”, think, how old was Jesus when he drove the money lenders from the Temple? Change comes because people are young and don’t have a lot of pre conceived notions of what is “right”

    thanks for the post. Its good reading.

  2. Ed Walker says:

    Revolutionary change is hard work, driven by a fire in the belly olds can’t always remember from their own youth. It’s the young who have the energy and the resilience to stoke that fire and put it to work.

  3. BobCon says:

    Thanks, Peter. Great stuff about the promise of youth.

    I’d add that as ugly as things look now, the deck is not stacked nearly as badly as it was against John Lewis, MLK, Ella Baker, Diane Nash, Bob Moses, and other pioneers.

    The entire machinery of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI was not just slanted against them, it was actively trying wield blackmail to drive MLK to silence and death. The governments of the South had declared open season on Lewis and the Freedom Riders. Every key Congressional committee was in the hands of avowed white supremacists, and the controlling precedents in court favored segregation. The media by default accepted a both sides narrative that promoted the idea that outside agitators and Communists were driving the civil rights movement.

    Most daunting, though, was the fact that public opinion was overwhelmingly in support of the idea of black inferiority, opposed to interracial marriage, and opposed to integration in any meaningful way.

    It will be a hard fight against the right wing, but the odds are still much better than what Lewis and the rest faced in 1960.

    • Peterr says:

      Thanks for the kind words, but I’m not sure I agree with you about the odds, BobCon.

      The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation is controlled by Climate Denialists, and the fossil fuel industry is heavily entrenched throughout DC.

      And not just DC. Thanks to the money that the fossil fuel folks spread around Jefferson City, MO, it is illegal for a city to outlaw single-use plastic shopping bags at a municipal level – it has to be enacted via a state law, and the money flows well enough to ensure that will not happen. There are similar laws in 13 other states. Compare that with 8 states where such bags are banned, and you can see the odds at work.

      There are cities and homeowners associations that ban solar panels (too unsightly, and they’ll lower property values) and wind turbines (buying into the nonsense from Trump about noise and cancer).

      Trump’s EPA just finalized a roll back of the federal jurisdiction over a huge amount of the waterways of the US, making increased poisoning not just likely but inevitable.

      There are a lot of forces arrayed against serious efforts to take on the climate emergency. They may not be as obvious as Bull Connor’s dogs and firehoses, but they are just as dangerous and just as deeply entrenched.

      • BobCon says:

        It is going to be a very hard fight, no question, but I want to push back on the defeatism that I see in a lot of places.

        The majority of Americans want action on climate change, despite the structural forces lined up against action. In 1960, even minimal measures for integration in liberal areas like NYC faced large public majorities in opposition.

        Today the fossil fuel industries have a major financial advantage, but there is still a lot of money aavailable to fight back. In 1960 King’s SCLC was regularly on the verge of bankruptcy, needing donations from people like Harry Belafonte and Tony Bennett to stave off creditors.

        The point is not that the fight against the right is a downhill battle, or a preordained victory. It’s that huge fights have been won against even tougher odds. The good guys have to keep plugging away.

  4. Displaced Person says:

    You never talked about what John Lewis did other than speak at the 1963 March. Read his autobiography and note to whom it is dedicated. Read David Halberstam’s The Children to learn more about the young John Lewis and his courage.

    • Peterr says:

      Yeah, I never mentioned that he was one of the original lunchcounter sit-in protesters or that he co-founded SNCC.

      Oh, wait. I did mention that.

  5. orionATL says:

    this is a wise and beautifully written post.

    where i live is john lewis country. remembrances of john lewis must include the philosophy behind his and rev. king’s, and their brethrens’ actions – civil disobedience. that philosophy is captured in a phrase for which john lewis will be remembered forever around here – “make good trouble”, sometimes “make necessary trouble”.

    one of the local groups that formed as part of the nationwide “indivisible buddies” political action movement following the women’s march on washington (occurring the day after donald trump was inaugurated) resides in congressman’s lewis district and goes about its voter registration, legislator-writing, get out the vote, door-knocking business under the name “necessary trouble”.

    here is a remembrance of one remarkable act of civil disobedience:

    it is crystal clear to me that given the cultural and corporate stranglehold the Republican party has on our nation at the moment, based as it is on vote suppression of many kinds, on the inequity of a territory-based rather than people-based voting system, and on the zealous violence of some the party’s major supporting groups (christian pro-lifers, anti-immigrants, racists, gun-rights nuts, and nazi-copiers) a return to full-scale civil disobedience will be essential to recapturing the kind of democracy we had for a few brief years in the period, say, 1955-1975. (the business roundtable was founded in 1972; the vitizens’ united court decision came in 2005)

    • orionATL says:

      i want to invoke also the memory of a very caring and competent professional politician who spent a lifetime fighting against unfair treatment of all kinds and left us recently, with this plea echoing in memory:

      “I’m begging the American people to pay attention to what is going on because if you want to have a democracy intact for your children, your children’s children, and generations yet unborn, we have got to guard against this moment. This is our watch.” 

      Representative Elijah Cummings, House Oversight and Reform Committee Chair

      This is indeed our watch – all of us.

  6. Jim White says:

    Thanks so much for this, Peterr. I stand in awe of Lewis and his colleagues back in their young days. They worked so hard training one another as they went into each act of civil disobedience. The logic of nonviolence is so appealing on an intellectual basis, but I can only assume that it must take incredible preparation and discipline to live it. The level of violence to which they were subjected is astounding when we realize that virtually all of those involved from SNCC and SPLC never met violence with violence. Not striking back when punched, hit with a police baton or brick or even blasted with a fire hose would be so difficult. I honestly don’t know if I would be capable of such restraint in the heat of being under attack.

    • Peterr says:

      One of the big things that the advance training does is instill in those committing to get involved in civil disobedience is a sense of community. You are not alone in what you do, and thus you have access to the strength of the community to support you.

      This is where the songs of protest were/are critical. As Bruce Hartford wrote,

      The songs elevated our courage,
      The songs bonded us together,
      The songs forged our discipline,
      The songs shielded us from hate,
      The songs protected us from danger,
      And the songs kept us sane.

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Thanks, Peter, superb. I think you have the better argument: things are as bleak as the 1950s, which just means we have to fight just as hard. Nothing like the Koch and similar networks then existed. A handful of foundations have been intentionally supplemented by a plethora of well-heeled groups and associations – Heritage, FedSoc, AEI, Business Roundtable, Cato – bent on having government follow only their priorities, which leaves everyone us pounding salt.

    Corporate involvement in government has grown beyond Lewis Powell’s dream, laid out in his 1971 Memorandum to the US Chamber of Commerce. The number of full-time paid lobbyists now constitutes an army. There are legions of wingnuts on welfare, and whole colleges and university departments behind them.

    Young people are recruited, evaluated, and added to the right’s nomenklatura. Their careers are fostered from college, through graduate school, and on into key posts in government, creating a pool from which eventually to staff high positions and to form a body of zealots – with and without Brooks Brothers suits – eager to “unleash hell” on any opponent. That’s where Bush Jr’s US Attorneys came from, and the Brooks Brothers rioters who descended on Florida in 2000.

    Technology, money, and sustained commitment allows the right to plan electoral campaigns and voter suppression efforts down to the street and house number, to support their brethren and attack their opponents, whom they dub existential threats.

    As part of that, Newt Gingrich in the 1990s fundamentally changed the lives and viewpoints of representatives in Washington. Newbie careers were taken in hand. They were made to spend half their time fighting for dollars rather than writing legislation and working for their constituents and with the other party.

    New congresscritters lived in group housing, families stayed at home, and congresscritters flew back almost weekly to see them and network with big local donors. The routine infantilized some, and isolated many from them their once potential allies across the aisle. Instead of meeting a Democrat in the supermarket aisle or at a Saturday morning ballgame, Democrats were reduced to cartoon threats. Access to leadership positions became based on pay-to-play. That emphasized followership, networking only with the like-minded, and aligning with the priorities of the donor class. It protected leadership from young Turks and relegated the interests of constituents to a biennial marathon of hand shaking and empty promises.

    Independent and local news organizations have become an endangered species, supplanted by largely rightwing conglomerates, which face little regulation and are free to manipulate at will. Digital social networking is superb, but can be co-opted by its providers and the state. Surveillance capabilities are profound.

    Politics is a blood sport. But youth have energy and heart, and a sense of right and wrong that often gives way over time to the pragmatic. (Pragmatic for whom, we forget to ask.) They demand change and believe it possible: “I dream of things that never were, and ask, Why not?”

    To get it, youth need long-term support – and the freedom to work for it. It would be hard for them to make a bigger mess of things than their elders. We have all that experience, you see, which is why Will Rogers reminds us: “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.” So, let’s work together on this.

    • orionATL says:

      i was just going to let this go out of concern it ran counter to the main theme of this very thoughtful essay, but earl’s final paragraph prompts me to go ahead and add:

      the oldest of the half-dozen or do leaders of the american revolution, as expressed by the declaration of independence and realized in the war was benjamin franklin, a businessman, scientist, and inventor of uncommon good judgment. franklin was 70 years old in 1776 and the delegate from pennsylvania. he was elected to the committee of five who wrote the declaration (w/jefferson, adams, sherman, livingston). his engaging personality, fame as a scientist, and prior experience living in europe were critical to the success of the american military effort (1775-1781), particularly his ambassadorship in france. the good counsel he offered his fellow revolutionaries was equally valuable.

      a neat little summary i took from the internet:

      experience yields some bad experience which can father good experience which can yield good advice to others.

  8. Christine Langhoff says:

    I had the privilege of teaching teenagers for 36 years in the public schools, and despite the challenges, I always enjoyed hearing their ideas and experiencing the intensity of their passions. I appreciate the recognition here that the Parkland kids had allies in the adults at school. They also had resources their well-to-do community made sure to provide – theater, debate, yearbook – which helped them to grasp the moment presented to them with leadership, grace and poise. These “extras”are often missing in schools in our cities. Some call those schools “under-resourced,” as if it were an inherent characteristic instead of a choice made by powerful interests.

    It’s a promising sign that teachers unions, like Chicago, Oakland, and LA have taken on the issues of gentrification, disinvestment and privatization of education, and poverty in an effort to help student leaders like John Lewis arise.

  9. posaune says:

    Thank you, Peter. So moving.
    In an encouraging development, my 15-yo son asked me today if
    he can attend the ACLU voter advocacy summer camp. Application requires transcript, essay, teacher references. I’m curious to meet the other students.
    This could be interesting.

  10. 200Toros says:

    Thank you Peterr for an insightful post. I am going to share this with my teenage daughter. We live in a very affluent area, and I am continually amazed at how stressed and anxiety-ridden her cohort claims to be, when most of them have never experienced what I would consider to be a real problem, ever, in their entire lives. They live lives of privilege that most of the world would gladly cut off a limb to experience. Yet many are unhappy and stressed. (Money truly can’t buy happiness.)

    I think this is a common phenomenon among affluent youth. I have many thoughts on the why of it, but I also think a key ingredient missing, is Perspective. Perspective on what young people can do when faced with a real problem, and a higher calling to do something about it. Not to belittle the stresses faced by modern youth – predators and bullies have greater access to them than ever in the history of mankind. Girls in particular are faced with insane expectations likely never before experienced by any generation. And their problems seem real enough to them, to be sure. But again, the value of perspective, in seeing the value of choosing to serve a higher purpose, is something I hope they can gain from, and which I will try to engender.

    Thanks again.

  11. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Jared Kushner brags that he “read 25 books” on the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

    LOL. If he did his own homework at Harvard, he would have been expected to read that many for a book report.

    Too dumb to know how stupid his claim makes him look, he is still smarter than his father-in-law and many of the people he hires. Harvard needs to create a new Office for Rescinding Degrees. It will be busy until Jared’s peace plan works.

    • P J Evans says:

      We had to read five or six novels in one quarter of freshman English. Freshman US history came with that many books – not just the text – plus monographs. (Some of the books I still have.)
      I wonder if Jared has even notice that there are books back into the 19th century about this.

  12. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Speaking while en route to Europe – on the trip he barred NPR’s Michele Kelemen from taking – Sec’y Rapture says that he hopes NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly “finds peace.”

    Finding Peace is a necessary act of recovery for any woman, especially after hearing hearing a grown man, calmly, reverently, but with the force of God, speak truth to power and to the lying media.

    Sec’y Rapture’s pathology is becoming a serious threat to national security.

    • BobCon says:

      Ideally, NPR will learn from this incident that there is no use pretending that the media is not a part of the stories they cover.

      They have no choice, if they want to be honest reporters, but to explicitly talk about how the right is massaging its actions to manipulate the press — in every single story. NPR needs to stop shunting this kind of reporting off to the cloister of the occasional piece by a media reporter — it needs to be an explicit part of their ongoing coverage.

      To circle back to the civil rights movement, a key tactic was exposing the dissembling cover stories that the segregationists had built for the Northern and national media.

      The phrases “separate but equal” and “Southern way of life” were code words designed in large part to defuse coverage of white supremacy. Lewis and others recognized at an early age that they needed to force the media to acknowledge that their alleged neutrality was in fact taking the side of brutality and white power. They won as much as they did by forcing the media to finally engage with the truth, even though they paid an enormous price in jailings, beatings and worse.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        It was a major win, too, just to get coverage of southern white violence against civil rights protesters. Much of it was spiked in the North as well as the South. But when Bull Connor’s water hoses and snarling police dogs made the front page, the media knew the end was nigh.

  13. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Don McGahn recently enjoyed a hometown crowd at the Jersey shore, close to where his uncle – who also represented Donnie Trump – helped bring gambling to Atlantic City. (The potential mob connections make the mind reel.)

    Meanwhile, he relies on his appeal to avoid testifying in Trump’s impeachment trial. McGahn dismisses his obligation to testify with a wave of his hand, but waxes eloquently about his commitment to “conservative judicial principles,” the Trump “win,” and the “disgrace” that was the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, ignoring those who thought Kavanaugh was the disgrace.

    McGahn dismisses the failure to appoint new federal judges for New Jersey as the fault of its two Democratic Senators, “who refused to go along with his recommendations.” How partisan of Menendez and Booker not to overlook the appalling records of his nominees.

    The ending softball question was about Harry and Meghan, “stepping away from their royal duties.” McGahn answered with the signature misogyny of the Trump administration: “I heard she called the queen and she thought it was a perfect call.”

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