Original Robert Scheer

John Lewis: The Purest of the Pure

A man who bled and cried for this country yet never gave up fighting for its soul.

By Robert Scheer

John Lewis was the purest of the pure, a man of unquenchable virtue, as even Julian Bond confessed to me in the midst of the bitter 1986 battle between the two SNCC veterans for the Congressional seat in Atlanta that John won. It was one of those unnecessary battles between two heroes of the same cause, pitting the saintly poor boy, rural prophet against the urban sophisticate; each equally virtuous and heroic.

John Lewis on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in March 1963.

I was with John the night Bobby Kennedy was shot dead in Los Angeles at the Ambassador Hotel. While I tried to write some sharp copy, John just sat by himself, crying once again for his country.  

Yet he never gave up, despite our nation’s cruel contradictions and his congressional colleagues’ condescending dismissal of his visionary legislative proposals. 

It was John Lewis, along with fellow Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader Julian Bond, who were the key “young people” Martin Luther King Jr. credited with convincing him of the importance of calling out the United States as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” in his scathing, historic anti-war speeches.

As Keisha N. Blain wrote for Time this week, John Lewis “held on to these ideals until the very end. He left a powerful legacy of advancing not just civil rights but also human rights—extending the focus of his work beyond the United States. By linking national concerns to global ones, Lewis compelled others to see that the problems of racism and white supremacy were not contained within U.S. borders.”

That faith was still with him when I last encountered John a few years ago, as he delivered a memorial sermon in memory of Rabbi Leonard Beerman, the founder of Los Angeles’ Leo Baeck Temple, a bedrock of unswerving Jewish support for social justice. John honored the legendary rabbi for his commitment to human rights as a universal and never parochial cause. 

Nothing had changed in the man who on that Selma bridge had once confronted the armed violence of government officials supporting racism with only the courage of his unarmed body. He took the policeman’s blows to his skull and the nation was given its formative lesson on what the Civil Rights Movement was about. 

The purest of the pure.

Lewis is beaten by police on “Bloody Sunday” as Americans watched on national television.

In the Leonard I. Beerman Foundation video below, John Lewis begins his speech just after the 44-minute mark.

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