In Search of the Beloved Community” – Chicago Review of Books


In one of the many poignant moments of his first inauguration in 2009, Barack Obama autographed the program of Civil Rights icon and longtime Congressman John Lewis with the words, “Because of you, John.” Lewis remained grateful for the encomium for the rest of his life, but he would also be the first to admit that his were only two of the many shoulders America’s first Black president was standing on that day. That honor roll stretched back long before either man’s time, and Lewis could reel off the names on the list much more readily than the president himself. 

But Obama had to acknowledge his immense debt to someone, and Lewis was one of the few surviving heroes of the civil rights struggle who had stood on the front lines at so many of its key moments—the Nashville sit-ins of 1960, the Freedom Rides of 1961, the March on Washington of 1963, and most famously on Bloody Sunday on Selma, Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965—and continued to carry on the fight throughout the ensuing decades, his own bald head literally bearing its many scars.

As a U.S. Congressman from Georgia serving continuously since 1987, Lewis had built a legacy that amounted to considerably more than serving as a reminder of a bygone era. His ongoing work as champion of a wide array of progressive legislation on Capitol Hill, mostly in times when the national tide surged against him, made Lewis the living fulfillment of Congress of Racial Equality co-founder and March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin’s assertion that the movement needed to turn from protest to politics in the wake of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Much like the movement itself, Lewis’s ambitions extended well beyond the nominal goals of its canonical “heroic” phase: desegregation of public accommodations and securing the right to vote for Black people in the American South. That’s why his story turned out to be such a long one. Lewis’s prominent role in the struggle ended neither on the Edmund Pettus bridge in 1965, nor in 1966 when Lewis lost the chairmanship of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in a bloodless coup that revealed how much the organization that Lewis and his fellow Nashville seminarians had helped found in 1960 had changed in a few tumultuous years.

Parts of Lewis’s long and complicated story have been told before, both by Lewis himself in his brilliant 1998 autobiography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, and in Jon Meacham’s His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope (2020), which concludes in 1968. But Lewis has not, until now, been the subject of a biography that takes in the full scope of his life in the movement and beyond, like Barbara Ransby’s Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, Jeanne Theoharis’ The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, or the numerous biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr., most recently Jonathan Eig’s King: A Life.

If Lewis’s fascinating life was just waiting for the right biographer to take up the challenge, it should come as no surprise that historian Raymond Arsenault, author of the definitive Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, should emerge as his biographer with the deeply researched and profoundly insightful John Lewis: In Search of the Beloved Community. John Lewis not only played a critical role in the story of the Freedom Rides that Arsenault told so ably in his earlier work; Lewis also proved a key interview and go-to source for that book, and served in some respects as a partner in the project. 

Arsenault portrays Lewis as a Civil Rights icon whose overarching purpose was not just to challenge injustice, gain specific rights, and uplift his race, but also to build a “movement toward a ‘Beloved Community,’ a society of equity and justice freed from the deep wounds inflicted by centuries of exclusion, prejudice, and discrimination.”

I spoke with Arsenault in December about how the biography came about and the process of writing it. We also discussed his personal relationship with a subject he describes as “a man of uncommon decency and breathtaking moral courage,” and the difficulties of maintaining critical distance and fashioning a balanced portrait of a man often venerated for sainthood without descending into hero worship or hagiography.

This interview was edited for space and clarity.

Steve Nathans-Kelly

Your book is the first biography of John Lewis to tell the whole story, and span his entire life. How did this book come about?

Raymond Arsenault

David Blight is a good friend, and he’s one of three editors of this new Yale University Press series Black Lives. David approached me early on to sign with them for a book, and I could have chosen anybody, but I definitely wanted to do a biography of John Lewis. Then Jon Meacham’s book came out and I was just crestfallen. I admire Meacham’s work. But then I got the book and discovered that, except for an 11-page epilogue, Meacham’s book ended in 1968. There were 52 years missing. And I thought, well, I can go through that window. There hasn’t been a full biography, and that’s what I specialize in. I did the first book on the Freedom Riders, the first book on Marian Anderson, and the first book on Arthur Ashe. I like to find these stories hidden in plain sight.

Steve Nathans-Kelly

In the preface, you talk about how in the course of writing Freedom Riders, which involved a lot of interviews and oral history, you got to know John Lewis. Can you talk a bit about your relationship with John Lewis, and how it began?

Raymond Arsenault

I had decided to do this book on the Freedom Riders, and two of my former professors, Jim McPherson at Princeton and David Hackett Fisher, did this series called Pivotal Moments in American History. They wanted to return historians to the art of storytelling, and I loved that idea. I believed the Freedom Rides were a pivotal moment, even though they weren’t considered to be by most Civil Rights historians at the time. The Freedom Rides kind of got lost in all the excitement that came afterwards, with the March on Washington and Birmingham and Freedom Summer. It’s just part of the white noise that comes before. And in fact, the term “Freedom Rider,” as I point out in the book, becomes a kind of general term for anybody who goes south to fight for civil rights. But believe me, the Freedom Riders themselves know who got on those buses and who didn’t, that they’re really a special group. It was a life-changing experience for me to do that book.

I met John early on and had an interview with him. He was busy arranging the Freedom Riders’ 40th reunion for 2001, but he couldn’t find a lot of the Freedom Riders. And of course I had been trying to find them myself. I had a list of addresses and phone numbers, we joined forces, and I became kind of his unofficial assistant, helping him find the Freedom Riders to get ready for the reunion. He invited me to come to the reunion as an honorary Freedom Rider, and my admiration for him began the very first time I met him in his office. He was so kind and almost otherworldly, saintly, and without ego. I called him Congressman Lewis, and he said, “No, call me John. I’m John to everybody,” and it wasn’t an affectation. He really meant it.

We met many, many times after that, on Freedom Ride reunions and on Smithsonian panels. He would come to St. Petersburg for various events, and so we got to know each other pretty well. I never got to spend as much time with him as I would’ve liked, but I would go to his office sometimes, and I spent even more time with his old roommate, Bernard Lafayette, who’s a major figure in his own, and deserves his own biography.

John died in July of 2020, and I thought I was going to be able to interview him several more times. But once he got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in December 2019, I didn’t want to intrude. I had enough information for five books, but selfishly, I wanted to see him again.

I didn’t get a chance to do the pointed questions with John at the end, but I wanted people to hear his voice, so I quoted extensively from the autobiography he wrote with Michael D’Orso, Walking With the Wind, which is I think one of the great books in all of civil rights literature. In some ways, it was a lot better to draw from a crafted memoir than from off-the-cuff statements in an oral interview with things that are so important. You don’t want to get it wrong when you’re writing about race and civil rights.

Steve Nathans-Kelly

In Mark Whitaker’s review of Jonathan Eig’s recent Martin Luther King biography, he says, on the one hand you have Taylor Branch for whom King is a saint, and then you have David Garrow for whom King is increasingly a sinner, and Eig set out to find the human being there. How do you write a balanced biography of someone who’s widely regarded as a saint, to the point where his own friends call him “Saint John” and kid him about it? 

Raymond Arsenault

Well, that made it difficult. I admire him so much, but I knew him as a flesh and blood human being—as much as is possible—and there are no personal papers. That was the biggest problem. I think there are some papers that his former chief of staff has, but he’s keeping them close to the vest. I say in the preface, I’m trying to avoid hagiography. In some ways, I tried to let him speak for himself, and you can judge. 

Steve Nathans-Kelly

It seems like the only time John Lewis ever crossed any sort of line was in the 1986 congressional campaign against his friend Julian Bond, when things got ugly on both sides.

Raymond Arsenault

I knew Julian Bond too, but I didn’t get to interview him specifically about the ’86 campaign before he died. I think John handled himself about as well as anybody could have expected. Of course, he was an incredible underdog, and everybody was treating him that way. He was this working-class guy from the backwoods up against the slick Black Prince. He and Julian had been best friends for years. They were a great team. And I know it hurt him and their relationship was never the same, though they were still friends. 

But it’s interesting to imagine what would’ve happened if Julian had won that race, as everybody thought he would. I don’t know that he would’ve stuck for the long haul. Julian was amazing, but everything was too easy for him. And I don’t think he ever would’ve put in the time that John did. 

There have been critiques that John was so much into being the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement that maybe he couldn’t do full-time as a congressman. But I think he proved that wrong. He was incredibly diligent, and even though a lot of the time the Republicans controlled the legislature and he couldn’t get through big pieces of legislation, the guy probably never missed a vote. Everything that I found out about his congressional career is that he always had his eyes on the prize, so to speak, of the Beloved Community, never wavering on that. If he had to choose between a short-term gain and the long haul, he’d choose the long haul. 

As John says—I love this, and I quote it—“I’m not a showboat. I’m a tugboat.”

Steve Nathans-Kelly

Arriving in Washington in 1987, and continuing through nearly his entire career, Lewis put up with a lot of rough years to be a liberal in Congress.

Raymond Arsenault

One of the most surprising things that I found is how broad his liberalism was. He was way ahead of his time, not just on race, but LGBTQ issues, same-sex marriage, environmental issues. There wasn’t anything that he wasn’t willing to help on in a progressive agenda. I’ve had some dealings with some civil rights figures who were homophobic and who are not good on those other issues. But John had this sweeping vision of the Beloved Community. That’s why I stress it so much in the book. I think it really tells you who he was. He embraced all those causes and from very early on, even though he was a guy who grew up [in rural Alabama] with no electricity, no indoor plumbing. He always seemed to be a little rough cut, unpolished, with a bit of a lisp and a deep Southern accent. They wouldn’t let him into the library when he was a kid, but he became a voracious reader and an intellectual. So I tried to bring all that out. John was one of the great figures of the twentieth century. To find someone like him, you have to go back to Frederick Douglas or Harriet Tubman. There were plenty of other people who fought for freedom, voting rights, and the essence of democracy, but he just embodied it. He lived it.

Steve Nathans-Kelly

One thing that I think I have a different understanding of now, after reading your book, was the incident at the March on Washington where Lewis’s speech was circulated among the organizers before the event, and they decided it was too militant and critical of the Kennedy administration, so he was not able to deliver the speech that he came to give. I had interpreted that incident as supporting Malcolm X’s idea that this was the “Farce on Washington,” that the most radical speech anyone tried to give there was suppressed. But the way you describe it, it comes across as this surprising moment of unity among members of SNCC who didn’t always see eye to eye, when they were able to get together, revise the speech, and then still retain the essence of something that was very powerful.

Raymond Arsenault

If you compare John’s speech to all the other speeches, it’s very, very radical. They cut out [characterizing the civil rights movement as] “the continuation of Sherman’s March” and some of the more incendiary phrases, but the substance is all there. It really is. In the end—and this was important to John—he could be proud of what he said. Of course, Malcolm X had a deeper critique of the whole march idea, and he had a good point. For a lot of people, it was just a kind of window dressing for the Kennedy administration. But John was one of the people along with Bayard Rustin who really made it something special, even though it didn’t do everything they wanted to do. It’s an incredibly important moment in the history of the movement.

See Also


Steve Nathans-Kelly

There’s a powerful section of the book where you talk about the culmination of Freedom Summer, when the Democratic Party refused to seat the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in favor of an all-white regular delegation from Mississippi that was going to walk out and vote for Goldwater anyway. You include a long quote from John Lewis where he describes Atlantic City as the moment when everything came crashing down, and he says that every betrayal of the Beloved Community since then, from Vietnam through the Reagan era and up until today can be traced back to that. Yet it didn’t seem to change John Lewis or his commitments as much as it changed many others.

Raymond Arsenault

He knew how disillusioning it was for so many people around him, and he cared about that. I think he could keep his head about it and bring perspective to it, but I’m sure it was very disillusioning for him too. I don’t think he ever trusted Lyndon Johnson again, if he ever did trust him. And you see the roots of Watts and all the things that are going to come, which really saddens him, because of what it did to the movement that he believed in so much. They have their great moment in Selma [in 1965], and then that’s sort of it. I must say, when I reread Walking with the Wind and the times I’ve talked to John, I was surprised at how [after Selma] he has a sense of, “Well, the movement’s over.” Maybe it goes on until King was assassinated in 1968, but he suggests it was already dead in some senses.

Steve Nathans-Kelly

You can certainly see Lewis’s perspective on that when, shortly after Selma, he went to Lowndes County, Alabama, where SNCC was organizing voters to form an independent party, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, that was openly carrying weapons, and he was so far out of sync with what SNCC organizers were doing there that he told people, “No, don’t vote for the LCFO. Vote for the Democrat.” I was shocked by that when I read it in your book. I know nonviolence was critically important to him, but anyone in SNCC who had organized local people in Alabama or Mississippi knew that armed self-defense was a fact of life for Black people. It seems like only a small step beyond that to see it spilling over into the movement in a place as dangerous as Lowndes County.

Raymond Arsenault

That’s a good point. Armed self-defense is the reality there, and I think he was just really upset with the way Stokely Carmichael was exploiting it. I think he could fully understand why those poor people in Lowndes County wanted to defend themselves, even though he couldn’t do that himself. But I think he thought Stokely was grandstanding and advancing his own personal agenda, which was often the case. And even though in some ways he respected Stokely, he knew how dangerous he was to his conception of what the movement should be. It doesn’t come out of nowhere in ’66 when Stokely tries to undercut him and he really engineers his departure from SNCC. They had been at odds for a long time, even though they’d lived together at certain points and could get along. But the public Stokely is what really bothered him a lot, because Stokely was going in the opposite direction from where he was going.

In the end, I interpreted [what Lewis did in Lowndes County] as showing that he has not just the physical courage, but the moral courage to say what he believes, even when he knows he’s going to get hammered for it, and it’s going to weaken his position. He says it anyway. 

Steve Nathans-Kelly

One thing that I struggle to understand with John Lewis is why he stuck it out with SNCC for so long. It seemed like a lot of the people who had come into SNCC with him in the Nashville Student Movement who believed in nonviolence as not just a tactic but a way of life moved away from SNCC as SNCC moved away from them. Why do you think he stayed with SNCC until he was essentially pushed out of the organization?

Raymond Arsenault

I’ve thought a lot about this. Think about his speech at the March on Washington, and how militant he is in his nonviolent way. The phrase “good trouble” is perfect for him. He really does want to make trouble. As he would be the first to say, “I’m not really a man of ideas. I’m a man of action.” I remember Diane Nash telling me once that John had said to her, “Voting is not enough. Voting is important, but you’ve got to go beyond that. You’ve got to activate your beliefs in some concrete way.” That was at the core of who John Lewis was, and SNCC was the group that came closest to embodying that. He really identified with the student movement coming out of Nashville. And of course, when SNCC moved away from them and became a bit more secular, getting away from commitment to the notion of the Beloved Community, some of them dropped off like Bevel. And others, like Marion Barry and Bernard Lafayette, are always kind of hovering between [Martin Luther King’s] SCLC and SNCC.

In some ways, it’s more surprising that he kept his connection to SCLC. He was on the board, and other SNCC leaders gave him a lot of grief about that. He had a great loyalty to Dr. King, but he just felt closer to the students than he did to the ministers. He deliberately made a career choice not to become a preacher. I think he knew all too well how many of them were kind of self-serving. For every Dr. King, there were five or six Black ministers who were more into Cadillacs and their own comfort than really sticking their necks out.

The SCLC was really dragging behind SNCC, and that’s why SNCC was so important. They deliberately would pick the toughest nuts to crack. They’d go into Birmingham, or they’d go into some of the toughest towns in Mississippi, figuring if you can crack the Jim Crow mystique there, you can crack it anywhere. That was what terrified the Justice Department. They were provoking the worst of the white supremacists. And John was all for that. I mean, anybody who got beaten up more than 40 times and arrested more than 40 times—oh my God, it’s incredible.

Steve Nathans-Kelly

And for a guy who essentially got drummed out of the organization he helped create and build at 26, he certainly bounced back and achieved a lot.

Raymond Arsenault

There’s nobody quite like him. It’s amazing that John became the one who fulfilled Bayard Rustin’s thing about moving from protest to politics. Who would’ve thought it would be John? They say there are no second acts in life, but boy, he had a long and incredible second act in Congress. I can’t tell you how many people I meet who ask, “What’s your new book on?” I tell them, and they just swoon. There’s just this incredible connection with him among people who are not necessarily all that attuned to history or to civil rights in general. It’s inspiring and empowering for them. But God, I wish we had him still around.

NONFICTION
John Lewis: In Search of the Beloved Community
By Raymond Arsenault
Yale University Press
Published January 16, 2024



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