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  1. Opinion

Ray Arsenault: John Lewis and Donald Trump — truth and consequences

John Lewis is struck by a state trooper during a voting rights march in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965. Donald Trump’s charge that Lewis is all talk and no action borders on the absurd.
John Lewis is struck by a state trooper during a voting rights march in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965. Donald Trump’s charge that Lewis is all talk and no action borders on the absurd.
Published Jan. 16, 2017

During the past year, we have all grown accustomed to President-elect Donald Trump's sharply barbed tweets. Every opponent, it seems, is fair game for his 140-character expressions of wrath. No amount of virtue or truth can shield critics from his verbal attacks and counter-attacks, and there is no evidence that the tweeter in chief harbors any concern for propriety or what normally passes for common decency or restraint. If we ever doubted the depth of his reckless commitment to denigrating even his most revered enemies, the recent assault on John Lewis' life and legacy should put that doubt to rest. After the Alabama-born Atlanta congressman questioned the legitimacy of Trump's election and impending presidency — giving voice to a suspicion shared by millions of Americans — the president-elect tweeted: "Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk — no action or results. Sad!"

Here Trump is belittling not just any liberal Democratic congressman but a civil rights icon often characterized as "the conscience of the Congress." While a spirited defense of his legitimacy as president-elect is understandable, Trump's ad hominem attack on one of the civil rights movement's greatest heroes is another thing altogether, particularly when it was launched three days before a national holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Throughout his career, both before and after his initial election to Congress in 1986, Lewis has been a paragon of ethical consistency and inspiring leadership. As anyone familiar with the narrative of the struggle for civil rights during the past half-century knows, the charge that Lewis is all talk and no action borders on the absurd.

I cannot pretend to be an objective observer of the Trump-Lewis contretemps. I have known John Lewis for 17 years; we have worked together on a number of civil rights-related projects, including Freedom Rider reunions, civil rights tours, Smithsonian symposia, oral history research for my book on the Freedom Rides, documentary films, and even an appearance on the Oprah show featuring John and 180 other Freedom Riders. Through it all, my respect and admiration for him has never flagged. Along with the legendary historian John Hope Franklin, he is the greatest person I have been privileged to meet during my lifetime.

No one in the long history of the U.S. Congress entered office with more experience as a social activist than Lewis. Indeed, transforming ideals into social action has been the central theme of his life and career. He earned his stripes in his early 20s participating in the Nashville sit-ins of 1960, the Freedom Rides of 1961, and various non-violent direct action campaigns spearheaded by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which he chaired from 1963 to 1966. Time and again, he put his body on the line for the causes he believed in, all of which involved his pursuit of what he and Dr. King called "the beloved community."

Beaten and arrested on so many occasions in so many cities, he literally lost count of his near-fatal brushes with the brutality of white supremacist officials and vigilantes. Most famously, he withstood the blows leveled on Edmund Petttus Bridge on Bloody Sunday during the 1965 voting rights campaign in Selma. Ask any veteran of the 1960s freedom struggle, and he or she will tell you that John Lewis is the real deal — that he ranks with Dr. King himself and a few others — Jim Lawson, C.T. Vivian, Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash — as a consummate hero of the struggle for civil rights and simple justice.

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All of this is chronicled in Lewis' prize-winning books, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (1998) and his recently published three-volume graphic novel March, which won the 2016 National Book Award for Young Readers. It seems highly unlikely that Trump has read any of these books or, for that matter, any of the other classic firsthand accounts of the modern freedom struggle that transformed American life from the 1950s onward. One suspects that his disrespectful treatment of Lewis is based as much on ignorance as it is on malevolence.

One can only hope that if he had encountered even a fraction of this historical material earlier in his life, he might not have dismissed John Lewis as just another liberal thorn in his side, one to be casually slandered along with the predominantly black residents (58 percent) of Georgia's 5th Congressional District. Seemingly incapable of misdirection and bluster, two tactics that Donald Trump exercises with impunity, John Lewis is the ultimate truth-teller — a man for the ages, but not, I fear, for the dark "post-truth" age we are about to enter.

Raymond Arsenault holds the John Hope Franklin Professorship of Southern History at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Currently on sabbatical leave, he is working on the final stages of "Ashe: The Life and Times of an American Hero," which will be published by Simon and Schuster next year. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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