“Democracy is not a state,” John Lewis wrote in his last essay, published in the NYT on July 30. “It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”
John was a field organizer and leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)in the 1960s, the New Left organization that led direct actions, including lunch-counter sit-ins and freedom rides, designed to confront injustice, break the back of Jim Crow, and build a true democracy, that Beloved Community. SNCC fought against racial capitalism, what the Reverend James Lawson called “plantation capitalism.” SNCC was also a militant anti-war organization: during the height of the invasion and occupation of Vietnam, SNCC urged Black men to resist the military, arguing that no Black man should go 10,000 miles away to fight for a “so-called freedom” he didn’t enjoy in Mississippi.
An inside joke: Field Secretaries sometimes referred to their organization as the “non-student, non-non violent, non-coordinating, non-committee.” A few useful books to read right now: the historian Barbara Ransby’s Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement; SNCC veteran Charles Cobb’s This Nonviolent Shit’ll Get You Killed; SNCC leader Rap Brown’s Die N**** Die, A Political Autobiography of Jamil Abdullah al-Amin.
SNCC fought for and practiced PARTICIPATORY and DIRECT DEMOCRACY. John Lewis understood that formal democracy is not the beginning nor the end, an important piece surely, but a piece built on a spirit of democracy, a deep regard for humanity in all its forms, a sense of mutuality and authentic dialogue. He knew that democracy is a verb and not a noun.
We are fortunate to be alive to witness and to participate in the latest upsurge in the centuries-old Black Freedom Movement—BLACK LIVES MATTER! Join in, rise up, build the Beloved Community.
Rest in power, John Lewis. Thank you for your service.