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Donald Trump’s attack on civil rights leader John Lewis, explained

John Lewis is the leader dissenters need in the age of Donald Trump.

Bettmann via Getty

John Lewis is probably not the person you want to accuse of “all talk, no action” if you’re the big-talking, Twitter-triggered president-elect of the United States. Lewis is a leader of the civil rights movement and a 30-year veteran of the House of Representatives; he’s a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and an American hero.

But on some level, Donald Trump’s tweets lashing out at Lewis (who had called the president-elect “illegitimate” in an interview with Chuck Todd on Friday) are totally expected, even inevitable. It’s what Lewis has been dealing with all his life.

The thing is that while John Lewis has been engaged in action for decades, the actions he’s been engaged in haven’t been respected either. He’s a student of nonviolence who’s been beaten up dozens of times; a voting rights activist who, even just a few years after the Voting Rights Act passed, found himself needing to argue that it was still needed.

Lewis has never been a radical. Anti-segregation, voting rights, black political leadership — these are all the sort of goals that everyone, in 2017, can get behind. But every step of the way, he’s been concern-trolled, dismissed, or scolded: told that he is focusing on the wrong thing, or trying to do the right thing but going about it the wrong way.

But there’s a fine line, when an activist is being scolded by those in power, between denunciation and delegitimization.

Trump’s tweets appeared to be totally impulsive; it’s practically routine, at this point, for the president-elect to fire off some early-morning tweets complaining about someone who criticized him the day before, and Lewis was simply Saturday’s chosen target. But the way that Trump attacked Lewis — and the way the president-elect has talked about black communities, politicians, and activists throughout his campaign and pre-presidency — is part of a pattern of delegitimizing dissent in general, and black dissent in particular.

Trump’s tweets were essentially “what about black-on-black crime?”

Trump’s tweets weren’t exactly accusing Lewis of not having accomplished anything — even though that’s what the “all talk, talk, talk — no action or results” made it sound like.

The three tweets, taken together, make it clear: Trump’s problem with Lewis is that he’s not focusing on the issues Trump thinks he should care about. As far as Trump is concerned, Lewis’s opinions can be safely ignored because his congressional district (which includes most of the city of Atlanta, as well as some of its most affluent suburbs) is supposedly “falling apart,” “crime-infested,” “burning.” If Lewis really cared about America, he’d fix that problem first.

The argument Trump is making, though not in so many words, is: Well, John Lewis, what about black-on-black crime?

Par for the course with Trump, this argument bears little relation to the facts. Atlanta is the heart of the black middle class in America. And while the city has a relatively high violent crime rate, it is almost certainly not as dangerous as Donald Trump (who routinely claims that America’s murder rate is at a 50-year high, and claims that black Americans “can’t walk out the door without getting shot”) thinks it is.

But this is the typical way Trump talks about black communities. His way of expressing sympathy for black America is to lament the fact that they live in crime-ridden hellholes due to the supposed neglect of politicians like John Lewis.

Time and again, he conflates black residents with the “inner city,” and characterizes inner cities as a lawless, crumbling dump — not to mention a place where all votes are fraudulently cast. It’s a characterization that resembles actual black America (or increasingly nonblack urban America) less than it resembles 1980s dystopias like Escape From New York and Demolition Man. And that’s exactly the point.

Trump’s rhetoric isn’t really for the people who actually live in cities or in black communities. It’s for white suburbanites who, because they deliberately avoid cities, haven’t updated their idea of what cities are like beyond Reagan-era stereotypes.

If you believe that black Americans really are in danger of being gunned down by criminals every time they open their doors, of course you’d be baffled that politicians from black communities ever talk about anything else — and a little upset with those politicians for ignoring the real issues when they do. You might conclude that they don’t really care about the disorder plaguing their communities.

But of course, the same line of thinking is what leads people to characterize black-led protests as themselves a form of disorder. The assumption that black communities are inherently unruly places makes it easy to fail to distinguish between a Black Lives Matter “protest” and a “riot”; to assume that anything law enforcement officers are doing in black neighborhoods is needed to keep the peace, and therefore any complaints about it are ungrateful or even dangerous.

Donald Trump’s nomination speech conflated Black Lives Matter protests with the Dallas police shootings. His nominee for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, emphasized during his confirmation hearings this week that criticism of police departments (by activists and the Obama administration alike) has led to a spike in violent crime in cities like Chicago and Baltimore.

The upshot is that there is no such thing as a legitimate political action that comes from black communities. Speech (as long as it challenges the status quo) is irrelevant. Voting is fraudulent; elected leaders are illegitimate. Protest is disorderly or anarchistic.

There is no “action.” There is only “trouble.”

It’s a bind with which John Lewis is intimately familiar.

John Lewis was committed to nonviolent protest back when nonviolence was seen as a provocation

John Lewis was a student of nonviolence. In 1958, as a Baptist seminary student in Nashville, he started attending nonviolence workshops led by James Lawson; “these workshops dealt with the question of philosophy, the discipline of nonviolence, the whole history of the struggle in India led by Ghandi [sic] and his attempt to organize in South Africa—building it on the whole idea of Christian faith,” as he later explained to interviewers from the Southern Oral History Program in 1973.

In the story of the civil rights movement that most people (especially most white people) have in 2017, that puts Lewis on the “right side” of the movement — the nonviolent protests of the early 1960s, focused on desegregation and voting rights, rather than the “radical militants” of the late 1960s. (Indeed, Lewis left the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1965, after Stokely Carmichael was elected to lead it, because he felt the group was no longer as strongly committed to nonviolence as Lewis himself was.)

But while that distinction seems perfectly clear and sensible in 2017 — a clear demarcation of a “right” and “wrong” way to take action, and right and wrong things to take action about — it’s hardly a distinction that existed at the time. Nonviolent protests were met with violence from white civilians and law enforcement alike.

A white student protester is dragged from a sit-in in Nashville on February 27, 1960.
Bettmann via Getty

When Lewis took part in lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville in late 1959 and early 1960, he told the oral history interviewers, white teenagers would pull “students off the seats or put lighted cigarettes down their backs, that type of thing. We continued to sit.”

INTERVIEWERS: Was any of that done to you?

JOHN LEWIS: I was hit, but never a lighted cigarette or anything like that.

INTERVIEWERS: Was it painful?

LEWIS: Oh, yes. We refused to strike back.

After one of those incidents, Lewis and the other student protesters were arrested. It was Lewis’s first arrest (he had just turned 20); there would be over 40 more in the course of his career.

In retrospect, everyone loves the nonviolence of the early 1960s civil rights movement. At the time, though, the movement’s insistence on nonviolent mass mobilization was seen by most of white America — even outside the South — as ineffective at best and unhelpful at worst. A plurality of Americans had an unfavorable view of the 1963 March on Washington; Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorability ratings declined throughout the 1960s. And even Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy tried to push civil rights groups, in 1962, to stop holding protests for a while and focus on voter registration instead. (The NAACP agreed; SNCC, led at the time by Lewis, did not.)

Lewis got his skull cracked open in the name of law and order

Opposition to desegregation wasn’t just expressed as outright white supremacy — it was a defense of “law and order.” John Lewis got arrested dozens of times because he broke dozens of laws — either laws of segregation themselves, or laws (often ad hoc injunctions) specifically designed to stymie black activism.

When Lewis spent 37 days at Parchman Farm, the infamous Mississippi prison, during the 1961 Freedom Rides, it was (as he characterized it in a 2014 tweet) for using a “white” restroom.

When he, King and others started the Selma Campaign at the beginning of 1965 (dramatized in the 2015 movie Selma) it wasn’t just because of massive resistance on the part of white poll workers to registering black voters — it was because of an injunction that had been passed prohibiting three or more people from gathering together and talking about civil rights or voting. (During the campaign, Alabama Gov. George Wallace added an injunction banning nighttime protests in the cities of Selma and Marion.)

These laws were unjust and unequally enforced, but they were laws. When Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed in Marion during a protest, he was killed as a lawbreaker. When Lewis had his skull fractured by law enforcement officers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965 — “Bloody Sunday” — while trying to march from Selma to Montgomery, he was in violation of an order to disperse.

Lewis led the marchers back to a church and (in the words of the New York Times’s article from the time) “made a speech to the crowd huddled angry and weeping in the sanctuary.” Only then did he go to the hospital to get his skull patched up.

Fifty yards beyond where this photo was taken, Lewis (here with Martin Luther King Jr.) and the rest of the marchers were attacked.
Bettmann via Getty

“Bloody Sunday” is generally regarded as the moral high point of the civil rights movement, the point where public opinion shifted decisively in favor of voting rights for black Americans. (Lewis said in the early 1970s that “If there is any single event that gave birth to the Voter Rights Act, it was the Selma effort.”)

Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark went to his grave denying anyone was hurt on the Edmund Pettus Bridge (he claimed they “all fell down in one big swoop” and “some might have hit their head when they fell down”). In 2006, he said that he’d do it all over again if he had to: “I did what I thought was right to uphold the law.”

Lewis has spent the past five decades getting told he’s doing black leadership wrong

Focusing on Lewis’s role in the civil rights movement runs the risk of making it seem like he’s just been coasting since then — like he’d stopped contributing to American history after the age of 25. But the more accurate way to think about it is that Lewis has spent the rest of his career trying to persuade other people that the fight for civil rights wasn’t won in 1965, and other people haven’t always been as willing to listen. Lewis’s actions at the beginning of his career have been lionized — often as a way to diminish the significance of the problems he’s identified through the next five decades.

Rep. John Lewis with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in 2013, when Lewis testified about the Voting Rights Act.
Win McNamee/Getty

In the early 1970s, Lewis served as head of the Voter Education Project — turning it into an independent activist organization dedicated to registering black Southern voters. (At one point, when Mississippi kicked all voters off the rolls and forced them to re-register, Lewis and Julian Bond held 39 voter mobilization events in 25 Mississippi counties — over the course of six days.) But as early as 1971 — six years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act — he found himself having to argue that it was still necessary.

“We have to look beyond the glowing reports of a new South,” he told the House Judiciary Committee during a 1971 hearing:

We have to recognize the fallacies of those who would tell us that Federal registrars and observers are no longer needed. We cannot allow ourselves to be duped into believing that, in these so-called new and changing times, the Voting Rights Act is no longer needed. The figures of unregistered black voters indicate there is still a need for active enforcement of the Voting Rights Act — active enforcement which we have not seen in some time.

Lewis testified before Congress on the need for the VRA again in 1975 — and again in 2013, the year after the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder struck down the section of the Voting Rights Act giving the federal government automatic oversight of voting regulations in certain (mostly Southern) areas. The argument made by Chief Justice John Roberts in the Shelby County case wasn’t dissimilar to the “new South” arguments Lewis was arguing against in 1971 — that the law had served its purpose, and social change had made discrimination a thing of the past.

For nearly 40 years, Lewis has been an elected official (first as an Atlanta city council member, and then, starting in 1986, as a member of the House); in other words, he’s followed the injunction often given to activists that if they want to really change things, they should go into electoral politics. And indeed, he (like many black politicians in the 1980s) took the sort of “tough” stance on criminal justice that Trump is faulting him for not taking today (he once challenged Julian Bond to take a drug test when the two ran against each other for Congress in 1986).

His role in the House has been less one of legislative leadership than moral leadership; he’s been called the “conscience of the Congress.” To a large extent, this is because he’s now accepted to be on the right side of history; it’s no longer controversial to believe that when Lewis was beaten down for refusing to get off the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he was doing the right thing even though he was blocking traffic.

John Lewis at the Edmund Pettus Bridge

As Lewis himself has taken to putting it, the trouble he got into in the 1960s was “good trouble, necessary trouble.” And history has recognized it as such.

But when Lewis has stepped into issues that are controversial, it’s become clear that deference to the “conscience of the Congress” only goes so far — that there’s still a tendency to dismiss people for expressing dissent the “wrong way,” even if they’re Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients.

Lewis was one of the leaders of the 2016 House Democratic “sit-in” over gun violence after the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. In Trump’s framework, it was “talk” instead of “action” — the sit-in didn’t succeed, insofar as Congress didn’t pass the bill Democrats were fighting for.

But the reaction by House Republicans proved that “talk” can nonetheless be threatening or even dangerous. Republicans shut off the cameras in the House chamber; they met with the sergeant-at-arms after the sit-in to consider punishing Democrats for violating House rules; and they subsequently passed a rule banning cellphone cameras on the House floor.

Lewis saw it as #GoodTrouble (which he turned into a hashtag for the occasion, in response to the criticism); his opponents saw it as a threat.

By the same token, Lewis has been unfettered in his criticism of Trump on moral grounds. In March 2016 — after Trump canceled a rally in Chicago and then claimed it was because of violent protests — Lewis brought back a refrain associated with criticism of Sen. Joe McCarthy:

Calling a president-elect “illegitimate” is certainly not the sort of thing that members of the House of Representatives typically do. It’s controversial. It’s causing trouble. But Lewis knows that. Lewis believes he’s making trouble for the right reasons: good trouble.

Trump’s disturbing tendency to delegitimize dissent

You’d think that Trump, a negotiator who understands PR as an arena and often has little in the way of scruples about the right way to win, would understand and respect Lewis’s skills in using protest to dramatize dissent.


Donald Trump is a tremendously thin-skinned man. He doesn’t tend to respect dissent of any kind when it’s directed against him.

This isn’t to imply that Trump’s tweets criticizing Lewis were part of some sort of strategic crackdown. They weren’t strategic. They were impulsive. But Trump, and those around him, has an unsettling tendency to see dissent as inherently illegitimate — sour grapes at best and sedition at worst.

Trump’s stab at Lewis comes at the end of a week in which Trump staffers have threatened to ban a critical journalist from future press events, while allies have called to prevent “mainstream” reporters from even covering him as president. Some Democratic members of the House aren’t getting tickets to Trump’s inauguration.

And while Trump hasn’t spoken out yet about the plans for a massive “women’s march” the day after his inauguration, it’s hard to shake off the memory of his reaction to the protests spurred by his election: calling them “very unfair” and claiming protesters were paid.

There is no correct way to dissent, in this framework. Speak out about the “wrong” thing, and it’s “all talk”; do something, and you’re a threat.

It’s an extremely uncomfortable situation for a dissenter to be in. But there are worse role models for such a dissenter to have than John Lewis. John Lewis has been in that bind all his life.