I remember the hilarious pilot–introduced on the Danny Thomas show. Two peace officers, Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife, became part of my childhood world. I was just three years older than Opie.
Sometimes corny, sometimes silly, The Andy Griffith Show reflected an earlier era that viewers knew was rapidly slipping away–an era that never existed at all for many people. Still, it provided a safe venue for self-reflection.
On The Andy Griffith Show, the small town sheriff didn’t carry a sidearm. He was skilled at de-escalating a situation. On the rare occasion when he went to the gun rack for a rifle, you knew something serious was afoot.
His deputy carried an unloaded pistol in a holster. He carried one bullet in the holster’s belt or his shirt pocket. When he made a mistake, sometimes the sheriff would say, “Barney, give me your bullet.” It was classic humor about a serious issue.
The Freedom Rides occurred during the show’s first season (1960-61). The rides and the show conveyed powerful lessons about nonviolence that are much needed today. Is violence our “go to” option or our last resort?
I was struck by their youthful idealism that emerged from the biblical concept of self-giving love. l was impressed with these college students’ ability to put their ideals and their biblical concepts into a philosophy. They were aided by Gandhi, Thurman, Merton and (most of all) King. But these young people helped shape it. When Will Campbell warned them that a particular protest would put them in grave danger, he became angry at young John Lewis, who kept saying, “We’re gonna march.”
I carried into my reading of Jon Meacham’s His Truth Is Marching On a preconception that nonviolence was a tool. It soon became clear that it was much more. Philosophy isn’t quite strong enough. It was a worldview, a weltanschauung (German), a comprehensive conception of the world from a specific standpoint. We came to know it as the civil rights movement, but they spoke more often of the nonviolent movement. Their power was in their thorough “buy in” of nonviolence as a way of life.
A few weeks ago I heard a radio interview of Adam Lankford, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama. He researched why the U.S. has a disproportionate amount of the world’s mass shootings. He looked at the psychological and demographic data. His assessment is that people in the U.S. aren’t more disturbed or mentally unhealthy than other cultures. The key variable is our easy access to powerful firearms. An extensive list of Lankford’s publications (from 2009-2021) is available at his website.
I’ve been to a few Civil War battlefields, such as Gettysburg, Shiloh, and Lookout Mountain. For several years, I’ve had a “bucket list” of battlefields to visit, such as Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Jon Meacham’s book His Truth Is Marching On has caused me to change my bucket list.
Now, just one Civil War site is on my bucket list: Appomattox, the terminus of Lee’s retreat from Petersburg. After a costly defeat at Sailor’s Creek and without food and supplies, it was clear that the end had come, which was ratified at Appomattox with simplicity and grace.
Appomattox commemorates a dignified end to a devastating rebellion and the beginning of a long healing that still is far from over. I don’t need to learn more about Civil War battles, but I want to learn more about the nonviolent movement that is part of our recovery from that tragic war.
The Freedom Riders demonstrated the power of nonviolence, though many saw them as the troublemakers. Meacham showed me how little I know (or how much I’ve forgotten) about an era that illuminates today’s struggle for the soul of the Republican Party, which was once the “Party of Lincoln.”
This wraps-up a week with Jon Meacham’s His Truth Is Marching On.
In May, 1961, John Lewis missed his college Commencement to be a Freedom Rider, testing whether Boynton v. Virginia (outlawing discrimination in interstate commerce) would apply to bus lines in the deep South. I believe this was the most radical initiative of the civil rights movement. On May 9, Lewis was beaten at the Rock Hill, SC bus station. The bus continued without him to Anniston, AL, where it was bombed and burned on May 14. That same day, other Freedom Riders were beaten upon arrival in Birmingham.
On May 17, Lewis and nine other “relief” riders arrived in Birmingham and were taken into protective custody. That night, they were returned to Tennessee. Lewis rode in a car driven by Police Commissioner Bull Connor. The group was dropped just over the state line in Ardmore, TN. An elderly black couple provided safety and breakfast.
Coordinator Diane Nash sent a car and the group returned to Birmingham on May 19. They boarded a Montgomery-bound bus on May 20. A Montgomery mob greeted them. Lewis was bloodied and knocked unconscious by a Coca-Cola crate blow to the head. A rally was held on May 21 at Ralph Abernathy’s church in Montgomery. A mob outside the church forced them to stay inside until morning. On May 24, Lewis boarded a Freedom Rider bus for Jackson, MS. For using the “white only” restroom, he spent two weeks at a county prison farm and almost a month at a state prison farm. There, he decided to turn down the American Friends Service Committee’s offer of a job in India. He believed he was called to help lead the nonviolent movement in the US.
Meacham quotes Diane Nash’s response to those who urged the students to stop the rides: “If the Freedom Rides were stopped because of violence … then the nonviolent movement was over. … Give the racists this victory and it sends a clear signal that at the first sight of resistance, all they have to do is mobilize massive violence, the movement will collapse, and the government won’t do a thing. We cannot let that happen.“
Students were on the front line of this nonviolent movement.
Any book about John Lewis de facto is a story of the civil rights movement. Jon Meacham’s His Truth Is Marching On provides details I didn’t know or had forgotten, such as Rosa Parks’ visit to the Highlander Center before the Montgomery bus boycott. She said, “At Highlander, I found … that this could be a unified society … people of different races and backgrounds meeting together in workshops, and living together in peace and harmony. … I gained there the strength to persevere in my work for freedom, not just for blacks, but for all oppressed people.”
Local initiatives led to broader collaboration. In late 1959, Lewis and Fisk student Diane Nash were part of a “Gandhian reconnaissance mission” at two Nashville department store lunch counters. Dressed in Sunday clothes, they were politely denied service. They asked to talk to the manager, who reiterated store policy. They quietly left without incident. Their purpose was to document the stores’ policies, groundwork for future action.
The catalyst for that action came six weeks later after four North Carolina A&T students were denied service at McClellan’s lunch counter in Greensboro on February 1, 1960. A Durham pastor asked Jim Lawson, “What can the students in Nashville do to support the students of North Carolina?” Hundreds of well-trained, well-dressed Nashville students participated in a series of peaceful protests beginning in February, that led to a full economic boycott of downtown. They encountered angry whites not committed to nonviolence. On April 19, 1960, dynamite was hurled at the home of Alexander Looby, a Nashville City Council member and attorney for the NAACP. The blast knocked out 147 windows at nearby Meharry Hospital.
Within hours, 5,000 people marched quietly to City Hall, two-by-two. Mayor Ben West met with the marchers. Diane Nash was the spokesperson. From Meacham:
Would the mayor use “the prestige of your office to appeal to the citizens to stop racial discrimination?” Nash asked.
“I appeal to all citizens,” West replied, “to end racial discrimination, to have no bigotry, no bias, no hatred.”
“Do you mean that to include lunch counters?”
The mayor stumbled a bit, but Nash kept after him, repeating, “Then, Mayor do you recommend that the lunch counters be desegregated?”
Time is passing. We tend to forget. Jon Meacham’s timely book, His Truth Is Marching On, will help us remember. The black church was the cradle of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s-60s. We must discern the difference between peaceful, nonviolent protest and the violent marauding that occurred at the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
Jim Lawson took John Lewis and other students to the Highlander Center, whose director of workshops was Septima Clark (1898-1987). She deeply impressed Lewis. Read this Meacham paragraph about her with the events of January 6 in the back of your mind:
Clark was the guiding force behind a wide-ranging grassroots movement to prepare people for the suffrage. “Day by day we silently pour the concrete of love into the furious, violent ocean of hate,” read a workbook for a Georgia Citizenship School under Clark’s direction. “Someday that concrete will build a foundation that will support a bridge to span the channel and open lines of communication to all peoples.” To Clark, democracy was the heart of the matter. “The Supreme Court building, where the Justices decide legal disagreements, is the symbol of law. The Capitol, where our Senators and Representatives make the laws, is the symbol of free, representative government. The White House, where the President lives and his Cabinet meets, is the symbol of our country in world affairs. We accept the results of elections and abide by the rulings of the courts.”
With $100–a gift of his uncle Otis Carter–a footlocker of clothes, and a Bible, Lewis left Troy in the fall of 1957. One day his mom brought home from work at a Baptist orphanage in Troy a brochure from tuition-free American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville. Students worked on campus to pay their way.
In exchange for washing pots and pans in the dining hall kitchen, he was paid $42.50 a month. Thirty-seven dollars went back to the school, which left him with a disposable income of $5.50 a month, and even that had to cover his books.
At Oberlin College in Ohio, M.L. King met Jim Lawson, former missionary to India who studied Gandhi. King urged him to come south. By 1958, in the basement of a Nashville Methodist church, Lawson was leading a Tuesday night workshop that taught Nashville students to weave the threads of faith, philosophy and justice together into a larger tapestry. Jon Meacham wrote:
“Jim came south, almost like a missionary,” Lewis recalled. “A nonviolent teacher, a warrior, to spread the good news.” …
“It was the Sermon on the Mount … that initially inspired the Negroes of Montgomery to dignified social action,” Martin Luther King recalled. “It was Jesus of Nazareth that stirred Negroes to protest with the creative weapon of love. As the days unfolded … the inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi began to exert its influence. I had come to see early that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom.” In sum, Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method.”
His 11-year head start on me was significant. By 1959, John Lewis was reading the likes of Walter Rauschenbusch while I lamented the decline of American autos, with their big fins and four headlights.
Our geographic differences were formative. He seemed more isolated, remembering just two white people from childhood–a mail carrier and a salesman. However, as a teen, he heard young pastor M.L. King on a Montgomery radio station and it changed his life. Though a city boy with more travel experience, I was the more isolated one. Only after King’s death did I begin to understand the power of non-violent resistance.
Yesterday I wrote that our big difference was race. It wasn’t race per se, but our different experiences of a society diminished and at times crippled by the illusion of white supremacy and the social distancing it created. Society’s big illusion shaped the very different questions we asked (or failed to ask) our family, state, nation and church. Faith shaped his questions. TV shaped mine.
These photos suggest a quiet, barrier-transcending power within John Lewis that is described in Jon Meacham’s book. Lewis knew about lynchings and shootings, but he said, I did not feel anger or ill will toward white people in general. I did not really know any white people. And I refused to believe that all white people acted or felt like the ones I read about.
Yesterday I read Chapter 1 of Jon Meacham’s His Truth Is Marching On:
John Lewis and I were born 11 years apart, in the same state but in different worlds. He knew dirt farm roads. I lived in a mid-size industrial city. The big difference was race. What was odd to me (“White” and “colored” water fountains) was painful for him. I never feared for my life because of my race.
At age 11, his uncle Otis Carter took Lewis to Buffalo, New York to spend the summer of 1951 with relatives: He couldn’t believe that blacks and whites … shopped in the same stores, lived in the same neighborhoods. … Buffalo offered concrete evidence that things could be different….
The Supreme Court gave Lewis hope in 1954, but change didn’t come during his public school experience. Lewis was 15 when 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi. “I remember that so well,” Lewis recalled. “It was so terrifying.”
Lewis first encountered Martin Luther King, Jr., on the radio. …He was left nearly breathless. “When I heard King, it was as though a light turned on in my heart.” …
“I can still say without question that the Montgomery bus boycott changed my life more than any other event before or since,” Lewis recalled. He read accounts in the editions of The Montgomery Advertiser that his grandfather … passed along to Lewis’ parents. To Lewis, the boycott was faith in action, the gospel moving from the pulpit to the street, from theory to reality, from word to deed.
From Jon Meacham’s “Overture” (prologue) to His Truth is Marching On:
When people saw (in 1965) what happened on that (Edmund Pettus) bridge (in Selma), there was a sense of revulsion… then redemption.
The American civil rights movement… is a war epic about a struggle between two opposing forces–but it is a war epic with essential distinctions from standard tales of war, strategy, and statecraft.
The heroes of this story laid down no fire, but rather walked into fire. …drew no blood, but rather shed their own. …sought no spoils, but rather asked only that the founding words of the national experiment be logically applied to all.
Montgomery, Nashville, Rock Hill, Birmingham, Selma … were the scenes of battles as real as Bunker Hill, New Orleans, Gettysburg, the Argonne, Normandy.
Meacham’s war imagery is accurate, and no one would have felt it more acutely than the oft-beaten and 45-times jailed John Lewis, whom Meacham quoted: “We say we are a believing nation, yet when we are wronged, the people demand revenge,” Lewis said. “If we truly believe, then what is the role of forgiveness, mercy, and compassion in public life?”