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Jon Meacham’s book on John Lewis sells him short

Jon Meacham’s “His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope” honors Lewis’ resistance but leaves out the hard work that got us here.

John Lewis, the civil rights activist who would go on to become a long-serving congressman and whose death this summer provoked a national outpouring of grief, woke up in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965. He put on his Sunday best, packed a backpack with essentials should he get arrested (two books, a toothbrush, some fruit) and headed out. Just after 2 p.m., Lewis led some 625 marchers on a planned 54-mile march to Montgomery, fighting for the right to vote.

Tear gas, mounted state police and an armed mob met them on the far side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. As Lewis kneeled to pray, they were attacked. He suffered a concussion and a fractured skull. The attack led ultimately to the introduction of the Voting Rights Act.

That Lewis, barely 25, was at the front should come as no surprise. For even though the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was the most famous advocate of Gandhian nonviolence in the civil rights movement, Lewis was probably its most devoted practitioner, and “Bloody Sunday” was where his legend really took root.

John Lewis sits in the street in the aftermath of a sit-in demonstration in front of the B & W Cafeteria in Nashville. (Bill Preston/USA Today Network)

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But what Jon Meacham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and longtime MSNBC pundit, overlooks in his new account of Lewis’ ’60s activism, “His Truth Is Marching On,” is the hard work that turned galvanizing protests into durable gains. Readers who know little about Lewis will find an often moving story, but it will prove unsatisfying to anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the movement.

The book is heavily influenced by a series of interviews Meacham did with the congressman near the end of his life. (Lewis also contributes an afterword.) The aim is less a comprehensive biography than “an appreciative account of the major moments.” The broader goal? To show “the theological understanding [Lewis] brought to the struggle, and the utility of that vision as America enters the third decade of the twenty-first century amid division and fear.”

Over the last two decades, Meacham has chronicled the deep divides in American life. His books, most notably “American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation” (2007) and “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels” (2018), have sought to bridge those divides by championing the value of a civic Christianity in politics and an American history that wants to inspire by reinforcing perceived core values.

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For Meacham, the pre-1965 Southern civil rights movement — and the career of the young Lewis in particular — connects these themes to today’s racial reckoning. He sees Lewis as “a reminder that progress, however limited, is possible and that religiously inspired witness and action can help bring about such progress.”

Meacham’s impulses are laudable but more suited to an op-ed, in which stirring rhetoric trumps nuance. Stretched to book length, the history gets shaky, reliant on a dated understanding of the movement as primarily regional and religious, rather than national and political, and emphasizing what today are its most noncontroversial aspects: The nonviolent protests against segregated stores and buses.

Rep. John Lewis in the Civil Rights Room in the Nashville Public Library in Tennessee in a scene from “John Lewis: Good Trouble.” (Ben Arnon / Magnolia Pictures)

Not that Christian faith wasn’t important; the best sections of the book highlight the role of religion in Lewis’ life and the Southern civil rights movement. Meacham keys in on the 1958 arrival of Rev. James Lawson in Nashville, where Lewis was attending American Baptist Theological seminary. In Lawson’s workshops on Gandhian civil disobedience, Lewis read Henry David Thoreau, Reinhold Niebuhr and Lao-Tzu. Perhaps most important, he developed a larger vision of the “beloved community,” which he described as “nothing less than the Christian concept of the Kingdom of God on earth.”

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The bulk of the book, six of its seven chapters, covers his life before 1965. As Meacham shows, Lewis’ intellectual and spiritual commitment to nonviolence fueled a remarkable reserve of courage during the sit-ins and the…

Andy Lewis

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