“This was hands-on work, and I loved it.”
John Lewis, an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, died at 80 years old on July 17, 2020. He will be remembered for a lifetime of commitment for fighting for the poor and minorities, as well as for his dedication to the American Civil Rights Movement. On March 7, 1965, John Lewis was brutally attacked as he and other civil rights leaders crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, marching toward the state capitol in Selma, Alabama. That event stands out as one of the most oft-repeated nationally known pictures of overt violent racism.
He bore the scars of his fractured skull for his entire life—as does America. In fact, all Americans bear the historical pain of that attack.
I first met John in 1980, when the National Consumer Cooperative Bank (NCCB) brought him on board to spread the word of cooperatives to Black leaders and communities. I was tasked with arranging John’s meetings throughout the U.S. and travelling with him throughout California. He was soft-spoken, a good listener, and uniquely humble in everything he did. What a wonderful, memorable journey that was for me.
The last time I saw John was on May 5, 2010. I was being inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fame that night and our daughter Hatley was going to Birmingham Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama, that fall. John’s message to my family and his photograph with us are appended to this article.
I thought we’d have about 10-15 minutes with John, but he gave us over an hour in order to talk with Hatley about the South, his life with cooperatives, and to share some of his stories about the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, as well as to congratulate me on my award.
That afternoon, John told us the soul-stirring story of personally forgiving the white Police Officer who bludgeoned him on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The officer was dying of cancer and wanted to apologize for his actions and to be forgiven. John and the former officer had talked and then prayed together in the same room that we were in.
John Lewis will long be remembered for the person he was and the passions he held. Many will write of his character, his contribution to building a better America, and his selfless willingness to push for and pursue change. He deserves every accolade and award he earned, for he represents the best of America. He saw the future of our nation and did all he could to lead us there. I will let others more capable than me sing his praises for a lifetime of service and good deeds.
What I want to focus on was John Lewis’ support for cooperatives. Throughout his years of public service, John always wanted cooperatives to build a better, fairer, and more diverse and equitable America. Here is a short chronology of John’s lifetime commitment to and engagement with cooperatives.
John attends the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. In his autobiography, Walking With The Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, John writes that before going to Highlander, he knew a lot about the uniquely interracial Highlander Folk School and its lonely, brave work striving for social justice in the south, led by its co-founders Myles Horton and Don West. At that time, Highlander itself was a cooperative and taught its attendees about the development and use of cooperatives.
John wrote, “In fact, the single person who most impressed me that weekend was a woman—a sixty-year-old organizer named Septima Clark.“ On John’s Island, South Carolina, Clark worked with Esau Jenkins on teaching Blacks on the island how to pass the rigid tests used to prevent Blacks from obtaining the right to vote. This voter education was all done secretly in the backroom of a food co-op that Esau and other Black islanders had set up to help themselves. The program that started in the island’s little co-op store called “The Progressive Club” would go on to become the Citizenship School Program, whose 900 schools registered millions of Blacks to vote in the South for the first time in their lives.
So, at the age of eighteen, John Lewis first came to understand the potential role of cooperatives. Rosa Parks had similarly attended Highlander in 1955 and had been impacted by Septima Clark as well. Rosa Parks later said, “I was 42 years old and it was one of the few times in my life up to that point when I did not feel any hostility from white people … I felt that I could express myself honestly without any repercussions or antagonistic attitudes from other people. It was hard to leave.” But she did, and only months later, with her new-found confidence, she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus.
At Highlander, John heard Guy Carawan sing the re-worded hymn, “We Shall Overcome,” first created by Black composer Charles Tindley. It was also at Highlander that John told me (in 2010) he first sat down for a meal at the same table with white people. It would be a seminal moment. In his book, Walking with the Wind, John wrote, “Of course, I left Highlander on fire. That was the purpose of the place, to light fires, and to refuel those whose fires were already lit.”
John attends a meeting at Spellman College in Atlanta on “Nonviolent Resistance to Segregation.” There, John was introduced to Bayard Rustin, who taught John about the long history of pacifist resistance. Rustin had already taught the same tactics to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., to use in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Bayard Rustin went on to organize the 1963 “March on Washington” from his apartment in a union sponsored housing co-op in NYC.
At the same Spellman gathering, John met and was impacted by Ella Baker, who, by my account, is the most unsung woman in the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.A. In the 1930s, Ella had become the National Director of the Young Negroes Cooperative League and was developing other cooperatives in Harlem and New York City. She taught a young civil rights activist named Bob Moses about co-ops. She was then hired by the NAACP to teach about cooperatives throughout the country. Ella also attended meetings organized by the Cooperative League of the USA (Now NCCBA). Ella was the first staff member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to work for Martin Luther King, Jr. Ella also wanted to lend her organizing skills to the young activists and volunteered to become the first staff member of the Southern Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Read part two of this series next week.
David J. Thompson
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