‘Not to injure or destroy but to build … to reconcile’: The Gospel according to John Lewis

‘Not to injure or destroy but to build … to reconcile’: The Gospel according to John Lewis January 20, 2013

BooMan today writes:

John Lewis’s … personal courage and sacrifice are so immense, and so many people are indebted to him, including me, that Rush Limbaugh really shouldn’t utter his name, unless it is to pay him the deep respect that he deserves.

Oh, no — Rush Limbaugh was foolish enough to mention John Lewis? Apparently, yes, the conservative talk radio blowhard was trying to defend an unlimited right to guns by saying that if nonviolent activists like John Lewis had been carrying guns, things would have gone differently on the march to Selma. “If John Lewis had had a gun, would he have been beat upside the head on the bridge?” Limbaugh said.

BooMan quotes from a history of Lewis’ courageous actions that day on the Pettus Bridge:

On March 7, 1965 — a day that would become known as “Bloody Sunday” — Lewis and fellow activist Hosea Williams led over 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. At the end of the bridge, they were met by Alabama State Troopers, who ordered them to disperse. When the marchers stopped to pray, the police discharged tear gas and mounted troopers charged the demonstrators, beating them with night sticks. Lewis’s skull was fractured, but he escaped across the bridge, to a church in Selma. Before he could be taken to the hospital, John Lewis appeared before the television cameras calling on President Johnson to intervene in Alabama.

Scenes of the violence, and of the injured John Lewis, were broadcast around the world, and outraged public opinion demanded that the President take action. Two days later, Dr. King led 1,000 members of the clergy on a second march from Selma to Montgomery, with the eyes of the world watching. A week and a day after Bloody Sunday, President Johnson appeared before a joint session of Congress to demand passage of the Voting Rights Act, empowering the federal government to enforce the voting rights of all Americans. The passage of the voting rights act finally brought the federal government into the struggle, squarely on the side of the disenfranchised voters of the South.

BooMan concludes by saying:

To call [Lewis] the greatest living American would not be hyperbole, for who would we put before him?

He accomplished through peaceful means what years of armed struggle would never have achieved. … He’s a giant who doesn’t get the credit he deserves simply because he wasn’t martyred and because he’s too humble to demand it.

That humility, and that greatness, were on display in the statement John Lewis himself offered in response to Limbaugh’s remarks:

Our goal in the Civil Rights Movement was not to injure or destroy but to build a sense of community, to reconcile people to the true oneness of all humanity. African Americans in the ‘60s could have chosen to arm themselves, but we made a conscious decision not to. We were convinced that peace could not be achieved through violence. Violence begets violence, and we believed the only way to achieve peaceful ends was through peaceful means. We took a stand against an unjust system, and we decided to use this faith as our shield and the power of compassion as our defense.

And that is why this nation celebrates the genius and the elegance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s work and philosophy. Through the power of non-violent action, Dr. King accomplished something that no movement, no action of government, no war, no legislation, or strategy of politics had ever achieved in this nation’s history. It was non-violence that not only brought an end to legalized segregation and racial discrimination, but Dr. King’s peaceful work changed the hearts of millions of Americans who stood up for justice and rejected the injury of violence forever.

That’s via David Frum, who adds: “Lewis resisted the temptation to add the question: ‘I wonder what Rush Limbaugh would say about a black protester who actually did fire upon state troopers and sheriff’s deputies?'”

At Crooks & Liars, Jon Perr fills in another part of this story in, “The Lesson of Selma for John Lewis? Love, Not Guns.”

The vicious attack on the Pettus Bridge was not the first time Lewis had been beaten while he worked nonviolently for justice. Four years earlier, as a Freedom Rider, his skull was broken during a beating in a whites only bus-station waiting area. Decades later, he would learn the name of the man who had beaten him that day, Elwin Wilson:

In February 2009 — 48 years after Lewis sustained a fractured skull in the assault — his attacker, Elwin Wilson, came forward and apologized to Georgia Congressman Lewis. As ABC News reported:

“I’m so sorry about what happened back then,” Wilson said breathlessly.

“It’s OK. I forgive you,” Lewis responded before a long-awaited hug.

For Lewis, who in the intervening years became a U.S. representative from Georgia, the apology was an unexpected symbol of the change in time and hearts.

“I never thought this would happen,” he told GMA. “It says something about the power of love, of grace, the power of the people being able to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and move on. And I deeply appreciate it. It’s very meaningful for me.”

And later, Perr writes, Lewis said this in an appearance alongside Wilson on CNN:

He said he wanted to apologize, that he was sorry, and I said, “I forgive you.” And I don’t have any bitterness or hatred, because it was in keeping with what we believed in, that we should have that we should have the capacity and the ability to forgive, that love is much stronger than hate. And it was very moving and touching for me for him to come to Washington and say, “I’m sorry for what I did.”

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  • Kiba

    “If John Lewis had had a gun, would he have been beat upside the head on the bridge?” Limbaugh said.

    More than likely he wouldn’t have been “beat upside the head” he, and the rest of the marchers, would have been shot. 

    ETA: Limbaugh is an asshole. Isn’t his 15 mins up yet?

  • vsm

    I never figured Rush Limbaugh for a Malcolm X sympathizer.

  • Bificommander

    I thought the wingnuts were all riled up about the half-dozen or so New Black Panthers. But Rush apparently just thinks all African Americans should be joining them.

  •  Part of me suspects this isn’t lost on Limbaugh.

  • Carstonio

    Lewis is a better person than me. If I had been a black man back then, it would have been very tempting to believe that the only route to freedom was to reduce whites to helpless terror, to make them fearful of their own shadows. Or to find a way to break the Bull Connors emotionally and spiritually, where they couldn’t even be around a black person without being wracked with guilt. Not for revenge, but for a refusal to ever be in a vulnerable position.

  • Lori

    Limbaugh’s habit of willfully missing the point in order to play to and incite his audience is certainly well established.

  • “Our goal in the Civil Rights Movement was not to injure or destroy but to build a sense of community, to reconcile people to the true oneness of all humanity.”

    I wonder if anyone picked up on the fact that this echoes Isa. 11:9:

    They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

  • I don’t generally share things on facebook, because I’m not a big facebook fan, but I did share this and I included this description:

    Rush Limbaugh seems to have forgotten some important things:
    1) When drafting people who would no way support your cause it helps if they’re dead and cannot respond to your claims they’d be on your side.
    2) Non-violent actions are rarely assisted by guns.
    3) Shooting the police would have led to a bloodbath Lewis would have been unlikely to have survived so fractured skull without a gun seems a lot better than dead with a gun. This goes against Limbaugh’s point.
    4) When claiming a historical figure who would not have been on your side would totally be on your side make damn sure they’re not still around to contradict you. I cannot stress this enough, which is why it gets two points.
    5) Don’t be an ass to someone who has done more for your country than you could ever dare to dream.

  • Sthall57

    I have lived in Florida, Alabama and Georgia as a voting adult. I lived in Atlanta for several years and had the privilege to claim John Lewis as my congressman.  He was one of very few representatives that I actually voted FOR.

  • Now, now, I’m sure Rush would be the first to tell us that if only Fred Hampton had had guns he’d be alive today.

  • Umm, the guys without guns won Rush.  They won against authorities desperate for a pretext to use lethal force against revolutionaries/ ‘outside agitators’.  The guys without guns won Because they were without guns.  Look it up. 

  • Random_Lurker

     He wanted another wave of attention/controversy, and he got it.  Limbaugh is not the scary one; it’s the people who take what he says at face value.

  • Shane Street

    A lot of white people had guns though.  Where was this 2nd amendment militia standing up against government oppression back then?

    Kind of off topic but, I wonder if ever there was a lynching stopped by a group of armed citizens showing up refusing to allow it to proceed?

  • Savvy Single Christian

    Rush Limbaugh missed the whole point of preaching ***peaceful,
    non-violent civil disobedience****.  When confronted by state troopers,
    the protesters responded by ***kneeling to pray***.  When protesting at
    lunch counters, part of the instructions were to go limp so as to be
    difficult to carry but not fight, not to meet an eye for an eye.  You are so right.  Suddenly Malcolm X’s philosophies as a black Muslim are being celebrated???  He should have carried a gun????  What???  And these are the people who hate Obama who they suspect of being a Muslim???  Wha-huh????????

  • Mary

    What I can’t understand is why the Republicans don’t see Limbaugh as a liabilty.  He is as good of a representative for conservatives as Archie Bunker was.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Wasn’t Limbaugh the one who said recently that the only way abortion should stay legal was if every one was done using a gun? 

  • What I can’t understand is why the Republicans don’t see Limbaugh as a liabilty.  He is as good of a representative for conservatives as Archie Bunker was.

    Because the thing about authoritarians is that they do not self-examine their beliefs, they just repeat what they are told by their authorities and cling to those slogans with fervent belief, no matter how contradictory.  People like Rush get the base fired up and ready to act against the opposition, and he does so consistently.  

    Unfortunately as the Republican party strategists have discovered, this absolutely kills their message with none-authoritarian voters, and have learned the hard way that opposing the authoritarians who now have social power in the party will get the non-authoritarian members exiled.  Go up against people like Rush, get booed out of your chances by the very people you are trying to appeal to with reason.  

    Gold for the party on certain local levels, gold for the book sellers and paid guest speakers, but absolute disaster for actually getting any functional influence on the national level.  There they only have their foot over the breaks, but can never grip the steering wheel.  

  • “If John Lewis had had a gun, would he have been beat upside the head on the bridge?” Limbaugh said.

    So Rush is endorsing the carrying of weapons as a means of deterrence then?  

    Okay, so I imagine that Rush would stop spouting crap if a posse of openly armed liberals waited outside the entrances to his radio station while he was on the air?  

    I mean, he would be okay with that hypothetical, right?  That seems to be what he was implying… 

  • It was more along the lines of the way to get abortions stopped being to make sure every one was done using a gun, so kind of the opposite of how you put it, and yet the gist is still there.  And yes, that was him.

  • Foreigner

    I’ve lived and worked in a place (Northern Ireland) where initially non-violent civil rights protestors did eventually decide to pick up guns and shoot back.

    Yeah, that worked really well.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Yeah, because the way to encourage continuing pregnancy while being respectful of the pregnant person is to make the alternative a severe and possibly fatal gut injury.

  • Because he’s had a good 20-year run of being virtually unopposed on any serious level, either because he was too small potatoes (1980s California radio guy) or because he managed to turn his gift of gab into a serious mass audience at a time when that audience needed someone to crystallize their resentments and anxieties about a President who didn’t think rattling nukes all over the place was a necessary thing to do after the Cold War was completely over.

  • histrogeek

    What would have happened if a protestor had opened fire at Pettus Bridge? Just looking at what happened a few years later when the Panthers just started carrying guns, forget using them. Their movement was hunted down and destroyed across the country without even the pretense of due process. Hyper-conservatives like the Blessed Ronnie were anxiously passing gun control laws. 
    If Lewis or one of the other marchers had shot back, Bloody Sunday would have been an even nastier version of the Bloody Sundays in Derry or St. Petersburg. Rush needs to get whacked with a clue hammer (or just a regular hammer).

  •  He is as good of a representative for conservatives as Archie Bunker was.

    Frighteningly, I ran into a young man who actually quoted Archie Bunker favorably a couple years ago.

  • At the risk of sounding cynical, I think that’s just it. rush wanted them to carry guns, because it would’ve meant the death of the Civil Rights Movement’s moral superiority (something he probably resents them for having in the first place), and would’ve meant a black president would very likely not have been elected. (In an alternative universe, he’s trying to marginalize women voters* to undermine President Clinton)
    * Well, even more than now.

    …tl;dr – I think he’s racist and wish the CRM all got killed before they succeeded.

  • Ttricksterson

    Oddly a lot of conservatives have a grudging respect for Malcolm X, considerably more than they do for King.  I think it’s because they can understand him better.

  • banancat

    Republicans don’t oppose Limbaugh because they agree with everything he says.  He’s a perfect representative of Republicans, except that he doesn’t have the filter to hide his thoughts.  He also does them a huge favor of shifting the Overton Window so their own comments don’t seem as reprehensible in comparison.

    You give Republicans way too much credit if you really think most of them are significantly different than Limbaugh.  All the reasonable conservatives left the party after GWB tainted the whole thing.  Now we have a Democratic party that averages out to be slightly right of center, and a Republican party that has the remaining few remnants that aren’t embarrassed to be associated with W’s legacy.

  • Dash1

    In the absence of a thread about the inauguration, I’m going to use this one to point out that the inaugural address and the closing prayer, at least, made direct mention of gay rights. And once again I thought of Dave’s “Mission Fucking Accomplished” upon remarking that it was now the opinion of the punditry that supporting same-sex marriage was the politically expedient thing to do. Now, the President, in his second inaugural address, and on Dr. Martin Luther King Day, cites “Seneca Falls, Stonewall, and Selma.”

    Another little piece of the mission, accomplished.

    (Next on the agenda: the full LGBT rights.)

  • I thought that one of the big reasons you had a lot of white people buying guns (especially in the south) was because they were deathly afraid of liberated black people coming after them seeking reparations for generations of oppression, and that was something that the Republican party could dog-whistle about in their Southern Strategy.  

  • Madhabmatics

     Ta Nehisi Coates had a good article about this fear re: the movie Django Unchained, peep this:



    Republicans don’t oppose Limbaugh because they agree with everything he
    says.  He’s a perfect representative of Republicans, except that he
    doesn’t have the filter to hide his thoughts.  He also does them a huge
    favor of shifting the Overton Window so their own comments don’t seem as
    reprehensible in comparison.

    I think you’re putting too little stock in the authoritarian streak in Republicans. Many of them don’t agree with much of what he says, but because they perceive him as having power and status, they feel the need to Respect His Authoritah.  You may not approve of everything the Don says, but you still have to kiss his ring.

  • The real irony is that the KKK actually convinced some southern Republican governments to disarm black people on the specious grounds that it would reduce the violence going on in the late 1860s and early 1870s.


    Um no

    It got worse

  • Savvy Single Christian

    I also wrote about this on my Savvy Single Christian blog because you inspired me.  I am seriously concerned about some of the gun nuts taking about being willing to use their guns violently against people who are trying to take them away through legislation.  They are encouraging killing people for their “Constitutional rights”  this is not in the spirit of the Constitution at all.  It concerns me that someone will get the idea to assassinate the President and we will be reliving the 1960s with assassinations of MLK, Malcolm X, and Kennedy.

  • Carstonio

    That’s probably true for the most part, except that I doubt that their fear of blacks was that specific. Some of the fear may have been of revenge, and some may have been a holdover from when the threat of slave uprisings was very real. In the years leading up to the Civil War, fearful slaveowners turned South Carolina into almost a military state.