Jon Meacham’s “His Truth Is Marching On; John Lewis and the Power of Hope,” is a stunningly powerful account of the life and career of John Lewis. Most often, when we describe events or behaviors as “shocking,” we are almost automatically communicating negativity: “… the shocking duplicity of this man,” or “the shocking cruelty of bigots.” But in the case of Meacham’s work, “shocking” carries many meanings and connotations that take us far beyond those negative implications of the word. It is, of course, an undeniable, all-too-obvious truth that 1960s Civil Rights workers like Lewis were cruelly abused physically and verbally, beaten to within inches of their lives, smashed viciously with clubs and truncheons, kicked mercilessly while lying semi-conscious on the blood-spattered ground, and generally treated like invading monsters from Hell. And to read the disgusting details of these acts of inhumanity is, indeed, shocking, even though we’ve seen and heard evidence of those brutal attacks before.
Yet there is an over-arching theme running through Meacham’s account that is somehow even more shocking than those horrors. That theme is the power and the incredible tenacity of the love demonstrated — without fail — by Lewis and his group of devoted freedom workers: the Freedom Riders, the marchers, the preachers, the otherwise ordinary men and women who fought tirelessly and against all odds for the accomplishment of their mission — to show the world, once and for all, that black people in America had never been afforded the rights that the Constitution was alleged to protect. And they would no longer accept that denial of precious human rights.
Studying Lewis specifically, we learn and understand more about his mission. Lewis insisted, as did Martin Luther King, that only light, not darkness, can conquer darkness; that only decency, not evil, can conquer evil; that only non-violence, not violence, can defeat violence; and, above all, that only love, not hate, can ultimately overcome hate. And those were the beliefs and ideals that he lived and fought for every waking moment of his life. When he was attacked, when he was beaten with rubber and metal weapons, a beating that resulted in a fractured skull, his rejoinder was to attack his attackers with love, to pray for their souls. That love — that Christian love — was his guiding light until his dying day. And that love also led to the realization of one of his dreams — the passages of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, both of which became law in 1965.
His life and his actions seem impossible, unbelievable — as totally unbelievable as his stubborn, unshakeable love for all people no matter what acts of hatred and violence were inflicted upon him. Those who read Meacham’s book will fully understand the author’s stated and written insistence that if saints ever actually walked the earth, John Lewis was one of them, a man who lived the life that he felt his God had intended him to live.
How deeply ironic it is, and how sad it must have been for Lewis to see, toward the end of his life, the upside-down version of his religion that has taken hold of the attention of America and the lives of so many who label themselves Christians. But Lewis certainly never did and never would give up his life-long struggle to bring to bear what was to him the sacred power of love, even love for one’s enemies. His quest for the attainment of his “Beloved Community” never wavered. And that’s why we can, like Meacham, sincerely and unashamedly consider him a true hero — and an honest-to-goodness saint.
Review by Jack Kramer.
This review was first published on Bookreporter.com.