‘Find a way to get in the way’

This past Sunday, a true hero came to Dorchester. John Lewis was one of the great leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and a man who displayed physical courage when participating in public actions. He was arrested 40 times for non-violent protests. He was almost beaten to death by white mobs when he was on the Freedom Riders bus in 1961 trying to desegregate buses and in 1963 when he helped lead marchers over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on a rights march.

By age 23, he was the head of a major civil rights group, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and on the roster as one of the few speakers at the 1963 March on Washington where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King made his “I have a dream” speech. He has been a member of the US House of Representatives for 27 years, but simply calling him Congressman John Lewis is insufficient; he is so much more than a good politician.

Lewis spoke on Sunday at the Kennedy Library Forum on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  His advice for the people of 2013 was: “Be of good courage. Find a way to get in the way. If not me, who will do it? Find a way to get in the way of injustices to try to turn them around. Find a way to get in the way.” He said his legacy is “to help out, make a contribution, I was someone moved by the spirit of history, I heard the voice of Martin Luther King on the radio in 1955 about the Montgomery Bus Boycott when I was 15, I heard the call, I’m not special but was blessed.”

The year 1963 was a momentous time in American history: There was the anti-protest campaign in Birmingham where the terrible Sheriff Bull Connor unleashed dogs and fire hoses against children and teens who demonstrated and filled the jails. … President Kennedy finally introduced a civil rights bill. … Medgar Evers, the leader of the NAACP in Mississippi, was gunned down fatally in the driveway of his home in front of his wife and children. … Rev. Dr. King gave his speech before hundreds of thousands gathered in Washington. … Four black children died when their church in Birmingham was bombed. … and near year’s end, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

Meanwhile, there was related activity in Boston. The historian Jim Vrabel offers this accounting: On May 12, some 10,000 demonstrated on Boston Common in support of the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham; the first Boston School Stay Out was held to protest conditions in the public schools for black children; Mayor John F. Collins took to television to say that economic discrimination was at the root of racial problems in Boston and pledged equal rights to jobs: Cardinal Richard J. Cushing asked Bostonians to take personal steps against discrimination; and 6,000 marched in Roxbury for better schools.

Let me recount some of what the panelists said on Sunday that speak to today’s challenges. Harris Wofford, former US senator from Pennsylvania and a civil rights aide to President Kennedy, said “the civil rights movement didn’t end in 1965 with passage of the Voting Rights Act. When do these days end?  When are we not needing to fight for civil rights and economic rights?” He said he worried about the fear that divides us and energizes the Tea Party to block so many changes. He said to have courage, we must “draw on fearlessness in our midst, inspirations in literature, and our religious traditions.”

The historian Clayborne Carson reminded us that civil rights activists did not celebrate enough how important the Civil Rights Act of 1963 and the Voting Rights Act of 1964 were.  We must be mindful of what is still to do, but if we don’t celebrate and recognize what’s been accomplished, some people will lose heart to continue to fight, he said.  The consequences of this, he added, were, in part, the white backlash of feeling that “black people want too much and my people are not doing great.” The year 1964 was the last time that a majority of whites and majority of African-Americans voted for the same person for president, so we are pulled apart.

Elaine Jones, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, reminded us that passing a law is one step but there must be further steps to get it enforced and vigilance to prevent it from being weakened. Tufts Professor Peniel Joseph talked about our having an African-American President in the midst of on-going racial disparities in income, educational achievement, and imprisonment rates.

The March on Washington was for freedom because the civil rights of access to buses, schools, public facilities, and to voting booths were not then guaranteed by law. But it was also for jobs because having a decent-paying job is fundamental to freedom. Dr. King continued this fight to the very end; he was assassinated in April 1968 in Memphis where he had gone to support the city’s sanitation workers who were on strike for decent wages.

That last campaign was called the Poor People’s Campaign and it was conducted in pursuit of decent jobs for whites, blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asians. We know how many today are unemployed, underemployed, or working at low wages. I was in Washington in June 1968 for a Poor People’s Campaign march, and the experience inspired me to keep working against injustices. 

John Lewis has challenged us to “find a way to get in the way” of injustices. When we do, we will make the world better and send out ripples of hope.

Lew Finfer is a Dorchester resident.