Our president may be the 45th, but the number holds a different, special significance for Congressman John Lewis — the politician and civil-rights activist has been arrested a whopping 45 times. The most recent arrest came in 2013, when Lewis and other representatives participated in a demonstration for immigrant rights in front of the Capitol. But Lewis has a long history of civil disobedience, which is chronicled in a new PBS documentary airing this Friday, John Lewis: Get in the Way.
In a way, the film is a document of the old cliché: the more things change, the more they stay the same. It doesn’t explicitly acknowledge the failures of the civil rights movement, or at least the gradual sliding back of hard-won voting rights. It certainly doesn’t get into Donald Trump or Jeff Sessions or the continuing presence of white supremacy in America. It nods toward the immigrant rights movement but doesn’t mention Black Lives Matter. It’s a straightforward celebration of a civil rights champion, not a searching exploration of institutional racism in America; it’s not 13th.
But, at a genial 60 minutes — whittled down from footage shot over 20 years — Get in the Way is an amiable introduction to a man who’s recently popped up in the news thanks to his vocal opposition to the 45th president. Old videos of family picnics mingle with black-and-white footage of a young (and rather dashing) Lewis testing the waters of a political career through his involvement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The film is a rousing call to action, full of stirring Lewis quotes that practically beg to be silkscreened on a T-shirt or scribbled on a protest sign: “You must be a headlight, not a taillight,” Lewis tells a college convocation. “You must find a way to get in the way.”
As a seminary student in Nashville, the young Lewis heard a personal call to action in Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights activism; he first met the man when he was 17 years old. In Nashville, Lewis, who grew up the son of sharecroppers in rural Alabama, experienced a desegregated setting for the first time in his life, describing it as a “different world.” He soon became an ardent advocate for the philosophy of nonviolence; as he describes it, you might “stir up” violence with your actions, but you mustn’t “engage” in it. “I had to keep loving the people who denied me service, who stared at me,” a young Lewis explains. Later, he describes non-violence as “love in action.”
Lewis’s mugshot after being jailed in Jackson, Mississippi,during the 1961 Freedom Rides. Courtesy of the FBI.
As an early civil rights activist, Lewis recalls, “I got in trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.” In 1963, at the age of 23, he became president of SNCC, one of the six organizations that helped organize the March on Washington and whose leaders — including King — have been enshrined as the “Big Six.” (Lewis, the youngest of the group, is the last surviving member.) In the 1970s, he worked as the director of an Atlanta-based voting rights organization, and successfully ran for Atlanta City Council in 1981. He ran for Congress in 1986, winning a seat he’s held ever since.
Get in the Way leans heavily on the civil rights movement’s wins. And yet the juxtaposition of speeches and events decades apart suggests we haven’t come as far as we’d like to think. The film shows CNN footage of former KKK supporter Elwin Wilson, who experienced an “awakening” after Obama was elected and, in 2009, apologized to Lewis for assaulting him and other Freedom Riders in South Carolina in 1961. But it also shows Lewis speechifying at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in 2013, crying, “We cannot wait, we cannot be patient” — right before cutting to footage of his speech at the original march 50 years earlier, expressing the same sentiment.
The film doesn’t comment on this irony, nor does it quote some more disparaging Lewis remarks at the time of the 50th anniversary march. “This is not a post-racial society,” Lewis told the Guardian in 2013. “Racism is still deeply embedded in American society, and you can’t cover it up.” Speaking truth to power clearly has its limits. But the film’s emphasis on the civil rights movement’s nonviolent yet confrontational tactics seems an implicit acknowledgement that words alone are not enough; as Lewis says of the Selma march, “I didn’t ask to be beaten on the bridge. I don’t like pain…But if that’s the price you have to pay to make things better for others, I was willing to pay that price.”
Are Americans willing to pay that price today? Early in the film, former Republican Congressman Amory Houghton asserts that people don’t just see or hear Lewis; they feel him, because his words stem from actions that have changed the course of history. Lewis is an important figure today not just because he’s one of few representatives willing to speak in unequivocal opposition to the current administration but because he carries this history — the actual, lived consequences of racist policies — in his body. Americans enshrine comfort and convenience; convincing large quantities to put themselves in potential discomfort and even danger won’t be easy, but it will be necessary.
As some people have pointed out in the past few months, authoritarianism looks like an appealing alternative to democracy only to those who have never lived with the reality of a fascist government — which at this point is most of us. The same holds for civil rights. We don’t do enough to teach young people that the history of black people in America is in large part the history of America, and this deep denial has enabled us to repeat the same mistakes over and over. Lewis’s persistent presence in American politics is a bulwark against that denial.
John Lewis: Get in the Way airs Friday, February 10th at 10:30 p.m. on PBS.