john lewis

To truly honor Rep. John Lewis, we have to do more than paper homage, writes Indian American Neera Kuckreja Sohoni. “We need to recall his style of warfare and let it fashion ours.” Above: Rep. Lewis speaks onstage during the 51st NAACP Image Awards, Presented by BET, at Pasadena Civic Auditorium on February 22, 2020 in Pasadena, California. (Rich Fury/Getty Images)

On July 17, 2020 Rep. John Lewis – an iconic American – passed away leaving behind what will remain forever. (Although given the present counter-culture and cancel-culture forces, who knows if some disgruntled person or group will rise to question even this incredible life’s worth to us and to our succeeding generations?) As a youngster, Lewis joined the Freedom Riders to fight segregation everywhere he encountered it. Beaten and arrested time and again, he never surrendered to violence, a lesson our Black Life Matters and extremist protesters on the right and left could well imbibe today. With his hands tucked away inside his pockets to show he had no desire or intention to be violent or retaliate, Lewis braved the sticks and floggings. He manifested along with Martin Luther King, Jr., and other protestors a respect for life, civility, and community.

Born in a distant land and destined to lead its enslaved people, Mahatma Gandhi devised and possibly was the first in modern times to apply this principle of using non-violence to confront and triumph over violence. Its two-fold tenets are simple. To the oppressor, Gandhi’s message was: You can fight peaceful protesters with violence only so far, and then, your brutality overtakes your credibility. To the oppressed, his challenge was to remain peaceful in the face of brutality. It is easy to subjugate others to your will through the show of weapons and physical power. But the true challenge is to bend someone to your will by persuasion and consensus and through the use of your inner spiritual and mental force.

As we commemorate Lewis, and his mentor MLK, and MLK’s mentor Gandhi, we can see a chain of peaceful warriors walk across the bridge of oppression which goes well beyond the physical bridge located in Selma, Alabama. And we see also thousands of others walk the talk and join the peaceful civil rights marches with Lewis and MLK in America, Gandhi in India, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and so on. The world is filled with unsung heroes who put down their lives but never their principles, and who cared and care deeply to end racism against all, not only against one kind of skin color.

To be a good soldier of peace, you have also to be an angel of love and mercy. You are required to and must support an equal love of all human beings. No one in Gandhi’s approach is less or more “touchable” and “untouchable” contrary to the dictates of the Indian caste system. And the colonial British laws excluding “dogs and Indians” are not permissible instruments of segregation and banishment. And the American laws banning Blacks from sharing any public space with Whites or even daring to intermarry are just as illegal and untenable as are forcible consignments of Jews to ghettos and eventually to extermination camps in Hitler’s Europe, or the arbitrary dispatch of Muslims in China to cultural cleansing and re-education camps.

All those and like excesses are genocidal of human spirit and aspirations, and they must be willfully but peacefully eradicated. As a soldier of peace you are not permitted to take even a single adversary’s life whatever the extent of the oppressors’ brutality, or tear down images and buildings and systems because you choose not to venerate or abide by them. Gandhi opposed burning down British Raj structures and buildings or incinerating British soldiers and civilians. Significantly, almost uniquely, he took responsibility for any violent and deviant act committed by his followers. If Muslims were slaughtered or Hindus butchered, Gandhi went on a hunger fast until peace was restored.

In contrast to today’s elected leaders and appointed officials, he would not stand by but actively prevent unbridled protesters in American cities from blinding the designated enemy (cops) with laser beams shot into their eyes, or from cheering an innocent passerby being smashed to the ground for merely resisting reciting a widely chanted and supported slogan.

Lewis spent his life in promoting and defending the rights of Black people but he, too, did so in a democratic way. Passionate about assuring them their right to equality and to equal voting and participation in American democracy, he was equally committed to the rule of law and disciplined struggle. He upheld voting as “precious” and “sacred,” and as “the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy.” One of his last acts in Congress was to help the Voting Rights Advancement Bill’s passage in the House. Many deem its enactment by Congress will be an apt homage to Lewis. But that is only half the message to recall him by.

To truly honor Lewis we have to do more than paper homage. We need to recall his style of warfare and let it fashion ours. "Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America,” he had advocated. Trouble is good but only if it is constructive and grounded in fairness, not in sweeping rejection of an entire people and their centuries of hard work. So what if our predecessors left us a mixed legacy? We don’t need to throw away the baby with the bathwater, or to despise and denigrate equally the good and the bad.

"Nothing can stop the power of a committed and determined people to make a difference in our society,” Lewis had astutely predicted. But he had also warned protestors to “Take a long, hard look down the road you will have to travel once you have made a commitment to work for change.” Alerting them to the need for being patient, he had said, “Know that this transformation will not happen right away. Change often takes time. It rarely happens all at once.”

Deftly pitting the uncertainty of a struggle against the certainty of its successful outcome, he candidly recalled: “We didn't know how history would play itself out. When we were getting arrested and waiting in jail or standing in unmovable lines on the courthouse steps, we didn’t know what would happen, but we knew it had to happen."

This is where not only his tactics but also his faith in ultimate victory appears to be fully aligned with Gandhi’s. Ever the fighter and unstoppable seeker of truth, Gandhi exclusively relied on satyagrah or use of soul-force to achieve his goal. If the mighty British Empire on which the sun was never supposed to set caved before the Gandhian soul force, it is only a matter of time before America yields to the BLM’s call for racial equality. But with one caveat – the call for equality cannot be violent, or exclusive to Blacks. It has to revert to being peaceful, and it has to serve and encompass all colors in our American human rainbow, including, yes, even Whites.

(Sohoni is an Indian American freelance writer and published author.)

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