From Abraham Lincoln to John Lewis: The Meaning of Democracy
“You know, I believe in forgiveness. I believe in trying to work with people. It will be hard. It’s going to be very difficult. I don’t see this president-elect as a legitimate president. I think the Russians participated in having this man get elected, and they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. I don’t plan to attend the Inauguration. I think there was a conspiracy on the part of the Russians, and others, that helped him get elected. That’s not right. That’s not fair. That’s not the open, democratic process.”
—Rep. John Lewis on Donald Trump, January 13, 2017
“Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to……mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!”
—President-elect Trump’s response, January 14, 2017
“No action or results.” This of a man who was arrested 40 times fighting for meaningful civil rights, who led the desegregation of Nashville’s lunch-counters, who was one of the first 13 original Freedom Riders who forced the end of segregated interstate transportation, who as chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee led the planning of the Mississippi Freedom Summer voter registration push, and who helped lead marchers over Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, where his skull was fractured by Alabama State Troopers, who beat the marchers.
As the historian Page Smith once noted, there is a direct line of influence from Abraham Lincoln to the leaders of the civil rights movement, and on this day devoted to Martin Luther King’s Birthday, and with Trump’s vile comments on Lewis still echoing, I thought I’d share a piece of it with you.
In his memoir, Walking With the Wind, John Lewis writes about how he got drawn into civil rights activism. His first real teacher was a man named James Lawson, a staffer with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who came weekly to Lewis’ church in the fall of 1958 to lead a weekly workshop on nonviolence and social justice. After several weeks, Lawson announced that there was going to be a weekend retreat at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Lewis immediately signed up. He writes:
I knew about Highlander. We all did. It was created back in the early 1930s by a man named Myles Horton, a liberal white activist who’d spent his entire life working for social justice in every arena from labor unions to racial equality. What Jim Lawson was doing that fall in the basement of Clark Methodist, Myles Horton and his staff had been doing for decades up in those wooded mountains. Dr. King had spent time at Highlander. So had Rosa Parks. And now we were going..
At a time when the south was still segregated, Highlander was an outpost of change. As Lewis later notes, “this was the first time in my life that I saw black people and white people not just sitting down together at long tables for shared meals, but also cleaning up together afterward, doing the dishes together, gathering together late into the night and sleep in the same cabin dormitories.”
“I left Highlander on fire.”
Lewis wasn’t the only one whose commitment to social justice was nurtured by Highlander. The folk school played a key role in providing training and education to labor organizers in Appalachia in the 1930s, and in the 1950s it trained many of the leaders of what became the civil rights movement. Segregationists hated the school and called it a Communist training center because it was one of the few places where whites and blacks mixed as equals, and it was ultimately shut down in 1962 for violating the segregation laws (as well as selling beer). When the sheriff padlocked the door, Horton laughed, saying, “You can’t padlock an idea.”
Where did Myles Horton come from? Born poor in Savannah, Tennessee, he grew up under the influence of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, which was an egalitarian and anti-elitist denomination. His church encouraged him to go to college, and he supported himself by working in a sawmill and a box factory. After starting at Cumberland College in Tennessee, he went to the Union Theological Seminary in New York and then the University of Chicago.
Throughout those years, he was looking to create a new form of education that would work directly with poor and working class people on their own uplift and for the transformation of society, not just their own individual advancement. But those institutions of higher learning frustrated him. As he writes in his memoir, The Long Haul, “Neither Chicago nor Union provided me with any model of how to work in Appalachia with poor and working people.”
That all changed for Horton in 1930, when as part of his training in sociology he went with several other students to visit Hull House. This was the first “settlement house,” started by Jane Addams in the late 1880s to provide education, health services and cultural activities to poor and immigrant factory workers. Unlike his fellow students, Horton wasn’t interested in learning how to become a social worker; he wanted to know how Addams had started Hull House and how she had dealt with the obstacles that arose in her path. To his surprise, she asked to speak to him privately and soon became a key mentor for him.
As he writes, “She was extremely helpful in getting me to think things out. I can remember one time when we talked about this business of democracy and I asked her, ‘Well, what do you think democracy means?’ She said, “It means people have the right to make decision If there is a group of people sitting around a country store and there’s a problem they’re talking about, there are two ways to do it. They can go out and get some official to tell them what to do or they can talk it out and discuss it themselves. Democracy is if they did it themselves.” I asked her where she got that idea, and she said she heard it from her father, who was a friend of Abraham Lincoln. I told her I didn’t that was bad advice at all.”
That wasn’t Lincoln’s only influence on Addams, who devotes a whole chapter of her autobiography to our greatest of presidents. As she writes, “Thousands of children in the sixties and seventies, in the simplicity which is given to the understanding of a child, caught a notion of imperishable heroism when they were told that brave men had lost their lives that the slaves might be free.” Though she was just four when he was assassinated, she felt Lincoln’s presence through her father, who as a Missouri legislator and Quaker activist was friends with him.
“My father always spoke of the martyred President as Mr. Lincoln, and I never heard the great name without a thrill. I remember the day–it must have been one of comparative leisure, perhaps a Sunday–when at my request my father took out of his desk a thin packet marked “Mr. Lincoln’s Letters,” the shortest one of which bore unmistakable traces of that remarkable personality. These letters began, “My dear Double-D’ed Addams,” and to the inquiry as to how the person thus addressed was about to vote on a certain measure then before the legislature, was added the assurance that he knew that this Addams “would vote according to his conscience,” but he begged to know in which direction the same conscience “was pointing.” As my father folded up the bits of paper I fairly held my breath in my desire that he should go on with the reminiscence of this wonderful man, whom he had known in his comparative obscurity…”
“In our early effort at Hull-House to hand on to our neighbors whatever of help we had found for ourselves, we made much of Lincoln. We were often distressed by the children of immigrant parents who were ashamed of the pit whence they were digged, who repudiated the language and customs of their elders, and counted themselves successful as they were able to ignore the past. Whenever I held up Lincoln for their admiration as the greatest American, I invariably pointed out his marvelous power to retain and utilize past experiences; that he never forgot how the plain people in Sangamon County thought and felt when he himself had moved to town; that this habit was the foundation for his marvelous capacity for growth; that during those distracting years in Washington it enabled him to make clear beyond denial to the American people themselves, the goal towards which they were moving.
Hull adds that it wasn’t until she went to London to study at Oxford under some eminent historians that she fully appreciated Lincoln’s role in American experiment: “The memory of Lincoln, the mention of his name, came like a refreshing breeze from off the prairie, blowing aside all the scholarly implications in which I had become so reluctantly involved, and as the philosopher spoke of the great American “who was content merely to dig the channels through which the moral life of his countrymen might flow,” I was gradually able to make a natural connection between this intellectual penetration at Oxford and the moral perception which is always necessary for the discovery of new methods by which to minister to human needs. In the unceasing ebb and flow of justice and oppression we must all dig channels as best we may, that at the propitious moment somewhat of the swelling tide may be conducted to the barren places of life.”
With his life and service, President Lincoln dug a deep channel for the moral life of America. Through it flowed the commitment of Jane Addams, who mentored Myles Horton, who built a community center for social justice that lit Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and John Lewis on fire. And now, if you are, like me, inspired by Lewis’ latest act of moral courage, then know this: you are carrying the charge of Lincoln, Addams, Horton, Parks and King too.
Footnote: I took the photos of the plaques marking the location of the Highlander Folk School last spring while attending the first “Cultivate the Karass” retreat organized by the family and friends of Jake Brewer to carry on his work.