“No, I won’t be going, no,” Trump told reporters when asked if he would pay respects to Lewis Monday or Tuesday at the Capitol.” USA Today, July 27, 2020
I was listening to another podcast today. It’s my go-to strategy for procrastination this summer. I mentioned the winding path I walked last week, from a book I read (The Artful Read Aloud) to the Works Cited to the On Being podcast that I’d never encountered (in spite of the fact that Krista Tippett had received a humanitarian medal from the previous president of the United States), to an interview with Jason Reynolds. This week, that podcast discovery led me to listen to an old episode, an interview from 2013, being re-aired in memory of John Lewis. I’m glad I took that walk.
I sat on the couch in my basement, nudging Farley to the side so that he only took up three quarters of the couch. I plugged in the earbuds and pressed play. The conversation ranged through a lot of topics, like how John Lewis and others trained themselves in the art of nonviolent protest. He described meetings in a church in Nashville, where they learned how to look someone in the eye and even try to smile, as they dragged you from a stool at a lunch counter or shouted slurs at you or even beat you. I thought about how much faith and hope and commitment went into those sessions. I wondered, “Could I do that?”
They talked then about a lesson John Lewis said he learned from his mother. It had to do with the value of undeserved suffering. He said that his mom taught him that suffering can bring redemption. When you suffer wrongly (though sometimes willingly in a protest), it demonstrates your commitment to a cause, to the power of love. In your response to that hardship, you even have the power to redeem your opponent or your oppressor you. Perhaps that is the reason that in 2013 the chief of the Montgomery, Alabama police force issued a public apology to Lewis on behalf of his institution. He handed Lewis his badge and pledged to do everything he could to create a public safety force that treated everyone in the community with dignity and justice.
Lewis and Tippett talked about the tension between wanting change now and being patient. I thought about how hard it is for me to navigate that tension in ordinary life. Clearly, Lewis and his fellow activists knew what changes needed to happen. They wanted to vote, now. They wanted to attend integrated schools, now. They wanted to be treated like equals, now. A hundred years after the 13th Amendment, they sang a song that my protester mom played for me as a little kid. The lyrics go, “I ain’t a-scared of your jail ‘cause I want my freedom, I want my freedom, I want my freedom, Ain’t a-scared of your jail ‘cause I want my freedom…I want my freedom now.” John Lewis was arrested more than 40 times in pursuit of freedom. Still, though he wanted it now, he knew that changing people’s hearts, helping people unlearn centuries of lies, didn’t happen in an instant. It required patience. I thought about how much you have to love a country, how much of a patriot you have to be to work that patiently to peacefully change a country that has met your non-violent protests with such violence and hatred, a country that has served you so poorly.
In the end, though, it was the poetry of Lewis’s favorite African proverb that stopped us all in our tracks, the interviewer, the interviewed, and me:
When you pray, move your feet.
I am always looking for beautiful words to post for the students in my classroom. I’m not sure if I can post these, because of their religious slant, but I will place them somewhere so that I can see them. To me, this proverb is the perfect rejoinder for when, after there’s been a mass shooting, people say, “Our hopes and prayers go out to those families,” I imagine John Lewis reading those sentiments and saying, “When you pray, move your feet.” He lived those words. He didn’t merely pray for integration of buses. He moved his feet and stepped onto the bus. He didn’t merely pray for the integration of lunch counters. He moved his feet and stepped up to those counters. He didn’t merely pray for blacks to have voting rights everywhere in the country. He moved his feet and marched across a bridge.
Throughout the interview, John Lewis spoke about how we shouldn’t think of love as just a feeling word. Sometimes that leads people to view the people who speak of love as weak. “It’s the opposite,” he said. Love means so much more. We have to think of love as a force, a mighty force, a force that can move feet…and hearts…and eventually nations.