Stand With John Lewis Against White-Washing of Civil Rights History

by Justin Jones

This weekend President Donald Trump will attend the opening of the new Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Mississippi at the invitation of Governor Phil Bryant. The announcement has attracted national headlines, especially as civil rights leaders like Representative John Lewis have responded with intentions to boycott the opening ceremony in protest of the President’s attendance. “I think his presence would make a mockery of everything that people tried to do to redeem the soul of America and to make this country better,” Lewis told reporters this week as the White House lambasted his decision. 

The persistent voice of conscience, John Lewis has consistently held the line at the vanguard of civil rights and it is time we took heed to his wisdom, warnings, and perspective for this current political climate. As someone who began his activism right here in Nashville, facing the beatings of white supremacists and arrests by the police department for sit-ins downtown, John Lewis knows first-hand the sacrifices that went into the advancement of civil rights. From the Freedom Rides, Mississippi Freedom Summer, to Bloody Sunday in Selma, he not only experienced them first-hand, but is a present-day testament to what too many politicians like President Trump, Governor Bryant, and many of Tennessee’s own lawmakers attempt to portray as distant history lessons. Their sanitizing of the Civil Rights Movement as a struggle with a definitive end-point 50 years ago is fundamental to their campaigns of dismissing ongoing struggles for justice taking place in the streets of America today. 

Even more insulting are those who have shamelessly tried to co-opt the meaning and legacy of the struggle for civil rights. Just this past session in the Tennessee General Assembly, State Representative Martin Daniel tried to rename his controversial legislation protecting hate speech as the “Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, & the MLK JR. bill.” Daniel originally held a press conference for this legislation, which he had initially labeled as the “Milo Bill” in honor of alt-right provocateur and former-Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos; he had to swiftly change the name when video surfaced of Yiannopoulos condoning sexual relations between men and young boys. In the same vein, state lawmakers Mae Beavers and Mark Pody, who filed legislation to defy the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges and prohibit equal protection under law for same-sex couples in Tennessee, included a mischaracterized reference to Dr. King in the bill to justify their claims. “WHEREAS, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his famous ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ stated, ‘How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law,’” the bill reads. While Beavers and Pody were audacious enough to cite Dr. King when simultaneously working to undermine civil rights, it is apparent through their policy agenda that they have probably not read Dr. King’s entire letter which challenged white supremacy and explained the need for direct-action. 

For those politicians who have continued to align themselves with racial intolerance to be honored at events lifting up the legacy of martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement-- like Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and Martin Luther King-- is to steal the lives and voices of these martyrs all over again. For a bigot who has attacked black athletes exercising their constitutional rights and pardoned 21st century ‘Bull Connors’ like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, to then take the podium from civil rights veterans like John Lewis is a cause to incense every spirit of righteous indignation. Though those in political power have attempted to white-wash our history, it is on us now to reclaim and continue it in the streets, city halls, and state capitols across the South in particular. As Mississippi freedom fighter Fannie Lou Hamer said, there comes a time when one gets “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Too many times in 2017 we have faced such a time. In preparations for 2018, our own state will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s  assassination in Memphis, TN, and his last efforts with the Poor Peoples Campaign supporting sanitation workers on strike. Let us make it clear to our leaders right now, that neither President Trump nor any other racist politicians should be invited as honored guests at any of the events. 

Justin Jones studied Political Science at Fisk University and is a Lead Organizer with Moral Movement Tennessee. He lives is Nashville, TN, and is currently pursuing ordination in the United Methodist Church.