Five years ago, the civil rights giant John Lewis spoke at Virginia Military Institute, a pairing that might seem unusual to those who have a one-dimensional view of the Lexington school but not to those who understand the story behind one the institute’s rarest awards.
We say rarest because the Jonathan Myrick Daniels Humanitarian Award has only been handed out five times since it was established in 1997 — the first time the school gave out a medal since the ones it awarded to cadets who fought in the Battle of New Market in 1864.
Every obituary of Lewis —who passed away Friday at age 80 — talked about how as a young man he led civil rights marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, at the other end of which he was beaten by state troopers so hard that they fractured his skull. Lewis nearly gave his life that day. Five months later and 34 miles away in Haynesville, Alabama, Daniels really did give his. Daniels was a white seminary student from New Hampshire who had joined the civil rights movement in the Deep South. One day Daniels and three other civil rights activists — one white, two Black — went to get a cold drink at a convenience store. An armed man — often described as a part-time deputy — blocked the door. When the deputy aimed his shotgun at one of the Black teenagers, Daniels pushed her out of the way— and took the blast that had been intended for her. He died on the spot.
Lewis went on to serve in Congress; Daniels went on to be officially designated a martyr in the Episcopal Church, that faith’s equivalent of Catholic sainthood. The Jonathan Myrick Daniels Humanitarian Award came about because Daniels was a VMI graduate. It is not an award given out lightly. The first honoree was former President Jimmy Carter, for his human rights work since leaving the presidency. In 2015, the award went to Lewis.
The acceptance speech he gave that day— available online at youtu.be/ADA6mmddnb8 — runs less than half an hour but covers a lifetime, from his youthful preaching to the family’s chickens to his latter-day attempts to persuade fellow members of Congress, who he said often had a shorter attention span than that of the chickens. More importantly, Lewis’ speech that day serves as a reminder of the troubled path that the United States has had to follow to live up to the ideals laid out in our founding document — that crucial part in the Declaration of Independence about how “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .” That may be what we profess to believe but it hasn’t always been what we’ve practiced.
In Lowndes County, Alabama — the county where Daniels died — more than 80% of the residents are Black. Yet in 1965, Lewis said at VMI, not a single one was registered to vote, so effective was the disenfranchisement at the time. Disenfranchisement is an antiseptic word that makes us forget about the ugly details, which Lewis laid out for his listeners. White registrars made prospective Black voters count the bubbles in a bar of soap, or the number of jelly beans in a jar — and then, when that humiliating exercise was done, rejected them as having failed the required “literacy” test.
Lewis’ speech at VMI that day was simple, but provocative — perhaps more provocative now than the day it was delivered. By way of praising Daniels, Lewis said of the martyred civil rights activist: “He got in the way. He got in trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.”
That’s a combination of words we don’t often find. We know what “good” means, or at least we think we do. We also know what “trouble” means. But what is “good trouble”? What is “necessary trouble”?
When we look back through history, it seems self-evident that leading civil rights marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge was the right thing to do — they were simply demanding their right to vote. And it seems self-evident that a Black shopper ought to be allowed into a store. But at the time, the white political leaders of Alabama did not see things quite so clearly, and neither did a lot of ordinary white citizens across the South. Out of that came trouble — what we hold now to be “good trouble,” “necessary trouble.”
Ideally, you’ve thought ahead here to the logical question we still confront: If we can look back and agree on what was “good trouble” and “necessary trouble” in 1965, what is “good trouble” today? What is “necessary trouble”? Have we progressed so far and so perfected ourselves as a nation that trouble of any sort is now neither good nor necessary? Or are there still ways in which we fall so short of our ideals that trouble — “good trouble, necessary trouble” — is the only way to call attention to those imperfections and correct them? The summer of 2020 seems an especially good time to ask those questions. Keep in mind that in 1965, the acts of violence came from the state, not the marchers.
Lewis said other things that day at VMI worth thinking about five years later. He said that Daniels and other civil rights activists “helped redeem the soul of America.” Who is helping to redeem America’s soul today? Or is it no longer in need of any redemption?
Lewis urged his listeners that day at VMI to “do what we can to create an America and create a world community at peace with itself.” Are we at peace with ourselves? The answer to that seems painfully self-evident. What would it take for America to be at peace with itself? Is that even possible? By definition, any democracy will have its divisions — authoritarian societies will, too, they’re just hidden and suppressed. But is there a difference between the ordinary arguments of civil society — which for us go back to the debates between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists — and a world in which it’s said that some of our fellow citizens are “enemies of the people”?
Lewis crossed over one bridge in 1965 — and into a hospital ward, from which he returned and went into politics. Now he has passed over another bridge, from which none of us return. And yet that first bridge still stands, still named after Edmund Pettus, a Confederate general who after the war became a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan —and a U.S. senator who three decades after the Civil War still campaigned against the constitutional amendment that declared his former slaves were now his fellow citizens.