Standing on the Right Side of History
John Robert Lewis, United States (US) civil rights icon and a member of the House of Representatives for 33 years, passed away on July 17, 2020. Also passing away on the same day was a less well know civil rights figure, the Reverend Cordy Tindell Vivian, a close friend and understudy of the great civil rights icon, Martin Luther King Jr. As fate would have it, both Lewis and Vivian died a day before the birthday of the late Nelson Mandela, a global champion of racial justice.
For almost his entire life, Lewis fought for freedom, equality and basic human rights, especially for black Americans who were disenfranchised economically, socially and politically. Lewis played a critical role in the US civil rights movement and his activism helped to bring an end to legalised segregation.
Lewis was a co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from which he organised student activism in the wider civil rights movement. At just the age of 23, Lewis was one of the organisers of and keynote speakers at the Great March on Washington in 1963. The march was organised to lobby for the civil and economic rights of African Americans and it attracted a crowd of over 250,000 people.
Lewis’ activism came with a heavy price, as he was often on the receiving end of violence at the hands of both the state and white supremacists. On several occasions, Lewis was beaten by police and angry mobs for challenging segregation and advocating for voting rights. In March 1965, state troopers in Alabama fractured his skull as Lewis led a peaceful voting rights protest comprising 600 protestors.
It would seem that very little, if anything, deterred John Lewis in fighting for what he believed in – not youth, not the threat of violence, not the threat of death, not the threat of imprisonment and not the onset of old age. Like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Dorothy Counts Scoggins, Cordy Tindell Vivian and countless others who were at the forefront of the civil rights fight in the US, John Lewis stood on the right side of history.
Standing on the right side of history is no easy feat. Often, remaining quiet in the face of injustice might be the easier course of action, especially when speaking out comes with the risk of great personal cost. Looking around the world today, whether in the streets of Hong Kong where the fight for democracy rages on; in dozens of American cities where the fight against racial injustice is still alive and well; or in other battlegrounds where people fight daily against inequality, violence against women or environmental degradation, history beckons us to choose where and with whom we will stand.
Be it in the Caribbean or elsewhere, every time we stand with those who subvert democracy, we stand on the wrong side of history. Each time we stand on the side of those who victimise others simply because of a difference in partisan affiliation, we stand on the wrong side of history. When we sit at the table of the oppressor, we also stand on the wrong side of history.
John Robert Lewis, Cordy Tindell Vivian, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and thousands of others chose to stand on the right side of history, sometimes paying the ultimate sacrifice, and our world is better off because of it. Whether we are ordinary or influential, educated or not, our calling is to stand on the shoulders of these giants on the right side of history. This is a calling to stand with the oppressed, speak up for the victimised and fight against inequality wherever it raises its head.