John Lewis, the son of sharecroppers in rural Alabama, first heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio, preaching at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. King described his sermon that day as “an imaginary letter from the pen of the Apostle Paul” addressed to American Christians, many of them complicit in the racism of the mid-1950s.
Today, as we observe a federal holiday honoring King, his words echo with special meaning. Unlike the rioters at the Capitol this month, King, Lewis, and others like them provided a nonviolent model for enacting social change.
“You have a dual citizenry,” King said while leading a boycott of Montgomery’s segregated bus system in 1955–56. “You live both in time and eternity; both in heaven and earth. Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to the nation, not to any man-made institution.
“The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will, it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it.”
“Hate is too heavy a burden”
Even though White Christian moderates believed their job was to proclaim the good news, not advocate for social reform, the Montgomery Bus Boycott captured the imagination of Lewis, then just a teenager.
“To Lewis, the boycott was faith in action, the gospel moving from the pulpit to the streets, from theory to reality, from word to deed,” Jon Meacham wrote in His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope.
At a time when White supremacists in the South responded to Black challengers with beatings and murder, Lewis refused to give in to hate and violence, unlike militant members of the Civil Rights Movement.
“I accepted the teaching of Jesus, the way of love, the way of nonviolence, the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation, the idea that hate is too heavy a burden to bear,” he said.
Christians, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent protests against British rule in India, used sit-ins, boycotts, and other peaceful means to draw attention to racial injustice. “Christ furnished the spirit and motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method,’’ King said.
The central role of the Black church
The importance of the Black church in the struggle for civil rights cannot be overstated; it has been described as the “backbone” of the movement. It helped mobilize the community and served as a meeting place.
Thirteen churches are on the United States Civil Rights Trail, including Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) in Selma, Alabama, where injured marchers retreated on March 7, 1965, now known as “Bloody Sunday,” after being attacked by state troopers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
The march for voting rights was led by Lewis, who suffered a fractured skull in the attack, and Hosea Williams, an ordained minister. Many of the movement’s leaders were ministers, including King, James Lawson, Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, and Andrew Young. King and Abernathy were leaders in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
“Countless Black preachers claimed that the Bible, especially the Gospels, called Christians to work for the betterment of African Americans,” Measha Ferguson-Smith wrote for the Stanford Freedom Project. “They preached that true Christianity demanded attention to and effort toward the liberation of oppressed peoples and the recognition of our innate equality in God’s eyes, as beings created in his image.”
John Lewis’ “incorruptible commitment to nonviolence”
Lewis graduated from seminary and planned to become a preacher before realizing that he could play a greater role in the civil rights struggle as a layman. “If it hadn’t been for my belief in God Almighty, the Civil Rights Movement and my own participation would have been like a bird without wings,” he said.
As chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis became one of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders. He participated in the Freedom Rides in 1961 to integrate the interstate bus system, spoke at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, and organized voter registration during Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964.
But he paid a price, just like others in the nonviolent struggle. “Like Moses, they challenged Pharaoh,” then Sen. Barack Obama said at a commemoration of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma in 2007.
Lewis could not be shaken in his resolve. Not when mobs attacked and beat him in Montgomery and Rock Hill, South Carolina, during the Freedom Rides. Or when a bus he rode stopped in Jackson, Mississippi, and he was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace for using a “whites only” restroom. He ended up spending thirty-seven days in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Penitentiary.
Civil Rights historian Raymond Arsenault told the New York Times that Lewis gained stature in the movement because he was beaten and arrested so many times.
“He was absolutely fearless and courageous, totally committed,” Arsenault said. “People knew that he always had their back and that they could count on him. He had an incorruptible commitment to nonviolence.”
Before Lewis died of cancer last summer, he was arrested forty-five times for various nonviolent protests, including five times while he was a member of Congress from Georgia.
“I just want to do God’s will”
He frequently alluded to the Bible when he spoke, comparing the Black journey toward freedom to the Israelites fleeing Egypt for Canaan in the Exodus. This time, King also shared that he had received threats from “some of our sick white brothers.”
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now,” he said. “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now.
“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
How justly are we acting today?
King’s teachings still resonate today not just because of his eloquence but also because of their roots in biblical principles. His nonviolent methods can be applied just as easily to issues like the sanctity of life and freedom of religion as they were to racial justice.
Although the Bible tells us to submit to the governing authorities, that doesn’t mean we should be complicit in wrongdoing. As King said, we have a dual citizenship in heaven and on earth, but our ultimate allegiance is to the kingdom of God.
Psalm 47:8 says, “God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne.” The Bible also tells us in Micah 6:8 “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
That means speaking out against injustice and standing up for biblical truth, just like the giants of the Civil Rights Movement did more than a half-century ago.