Anyone with a baseline knowledge of Alabama history likely knows the name John Lewis.
Lewis — a current Democratic congressman from Georgia — was one of the original Freedom Riders. He sustained some of the worst injuries in the infamous 1965 Bloody Sunday march on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Lewis, who was born in Troy, became one of the youngest icons in the civil rights movement. He was there and personally witnessed much of Martin Luther King Jr.’s work. He also faced the consequences of participating in the civil rights struggle, which will forever be a black stain on the South.
Twenty-one years after Bloody Sunday, in 1986 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and, since then, has been a civil rights figurehead in Congress.
For that reason, when Lewis speaks we all listen. He was there. He lived under the segregated South and fought to change it. Every March 7, he participates in a symbolic march across the bridge, arm in arm with dignitaries, to commemorate that day in 1965.
When Lewis speaks at Selma, he is quick to point out that now politicians are all too eager to be seen at the front of the parade across the bridge. He will remind attendees that when he marched, no one wanted to be at the front of the line for civil rights on March 7, 1965, and that now, everyone with an eye on higher office wants to be seen at the front of that line.
Although Lewis eventually became a politician, that was not the reason he participated in the original Selma march. He participated for the right to vote. For that and his accompanying civil rights efforts, many regard him as an authority on race relations.
But now, with the election of Donald Trump, Democrats have decided that weaponizing this part of history — and Lewis himself — is a justified course of action because they were disappointed in last November’s election.
First it started with President-elect Donald Trump’s appointment of Alabama’s own Sen. Jeff Sessions to be his administration’s attorney general.
Never mind the numerous pictures of Sessions and Lewis standing together at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge or the fact that the two were raised in the same state a hundred miles apart from one another. But during Sessions’ confirmation hearing last week, Lewis testified against Sessions.
“It doesn’t matter how Senator Sessions may smile, how friendly he may be, how he may speak to you,” Lewis said to the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We need someone who is going to stand up, to speak up and speak out for the people that need help. For people who have been discriminated against. And it doesn’t matter if they’re black, white, Latino, Asian American or Native American. Whether they are straight or gay, Muslim, Christian or Jews. We all live in the same house, the American house. We need someone as attorney general who is going to look out for all of us, not just some of us.”
In his remarks, Lewis was not particularly clear how Sessions would just look out for “some of us,” but, given he is a civil rights figure, his logic seems to be less important than his role in history.
So we should oppose Sessions’ confirmation just because Lewis said so?
Lewis took it a step further later in the week in declaring Trump “an illegitimate president” in an interview with NBC News.
“It’s going to be very difficult,” Lewis said when asked if he could work with President Trump. “I don’t see the president-elect as a legitimate president.”
Trump — as he usually does when faced with criticism — responded with a tweet attacking Lewis for the problems with violent crime in his congressional district.
Democrats and the media acted immediately, attacking the president-elect. How dare Trump attack Lewis on the eve of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday!
Now you have Trump and his supporters pitted against John Lewis and most of the Democratic Party at a time we are supposed to be honoring a man who envisioned race no longer being such a divisive barrier.
It is not as if Trump has held any sort of political office and put in place a policy that eroded civil rights gains. He has not even had a chance.
Yet just days before inauguration, there is yet another highly politicized feud about race. Trump is set up for failure even before his first action as president.
What is likely going on is that, for a month and a half, Democrats were stunned by Hillary Clinton’s loss and were grasping at anything to explain it — fake news, rise of the alt-right, Russia hacking, etc. Now they are dealing with it by attacking the credibility of Trump and using a civil rights icon in Lewis — who is to many above criticism.
At a certain point, Lewis’ reputation will take some hits, particularly if Trump supporters see Lewis’ criticism as purely political.
Even if you disagree with Trump, playing the most sacred of race cards at this early stage is going to cheapen some of the civil rights legacy. There might be such a time when it is necessary, but doing so as a way to deal with the trauma of last month’s election outcome seems like an inappropriate time.