With John Lewis in Stockholm 1969

1 Aug


Moved by the iconic recognition of John Lewis’ exceptional courage and perseverance on behalf of human rights, non-violence, and opposition to American militarism, I recall a weekend spent together in Stockholm. We were the two invited American speakers at a conference opposing the American War in Vietnam. Although I spoke at many events devoted to these themes this may have been my most memorable occasion because Lewis made such an indelible impression. We shared meals together, and were hosted at the same hotel.


It was the very late 1960s not long after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, a time when these bloody events, including the Selma march and many others, brought success to the Civil Rights Movement, but far from a decisive victory that finally banished systemic racism from the American political and societal landscape. Lewis was the most radical figure in the movement against racial injustice I had encountered. At the time he was the activist leader of the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, better known as SNCC, which was seen as both dedicated to nonviolent struggle but more confrontational than the sort of national leadership provided by King.


I found Lewis engaging, brash, funny, charming, and above all, projecting a kind of radical aura that in the course of his life caused him, despite his lifelong adherence to principled nonviolence, to be the victim of repeated violent assaults by white supremacists, KKK members, and law enforcement as well as enduring 45 arrests and frequent jail time. I only learned later to appreciate his unswerving dedication to challenging racist moves to sustain the cruelties of white privilege throughout the South in every sphere of human existence, flagrantly trampling on both the rule of law and the U.S. Constitution.


In my experience of Lewis, he was as passionate about opposing American war making in Vietnam as he had been previously celebratory of African liberation struggles. He famously often asked the rhetorical question as to why Lyndon Johnson was willing to send American troops to kill Vietnamese peasants thousands of miles away but unwilling to order Federal troops to protect African Americans seeking to uphold their most basic human rights within their own country. He gave such a talk along this general theme in Stockholm, exhibiting anger about the long-embedded injustices he was devoting his life to struggle against in America, and declaring this commitment as inseparable from his opposition to the unlawful devastation and suffering being visited upon the Vietnamese, a distant people of color.


As much as I enjoyed and learned from John Lewis as he came across in Sweden on that weekend it never occurred to me that he would become a member of Congress, and even less, that he was destined to emerge as the most widely revered African American leader and inspirational figure since MLK. Of course, his death in the midst of the pandemic and in the wake of the eruption of the most sustained protests against systemic racism added a special poignancy to his death, making it a symbolic complement to the police murder of George Floyd weeks earlier. The funeral for John Lewis featured emotional eulogies by Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi, whose collective eloquence lived up to this historic occasion, recognizing Lewis’ extraordinary dignity, persistence, and leadership. It could said that of his generation no single person better personified ‘the better angels’ of the American spirit that Lincoln summoned all of us to nurture than did John Lewis.


Thinking back to that weekend in Stockholm I marvel at how John Lewis reinvented himself, and rose to a position of moral preeminence and unsurpassed political wisdom and maturity, a progressive beacon for people like myself yet becoming mindful enough of the mainstream to win respect and exert influence almost across the entire political spectrum. The firebrand I had the precious experience of meeting over 50 years ago kept the fires within him burning brightly throughout his long life, while transforming his style so that all would listen and many would heed.


Unlike the other fallen heroes of the past century John Lewis realized the imminence of his death, and seized the opportunity to write a will and testament of faith and commitment to the American people as a whole, without a shred of bitterness or a trace of ethnic exclusiveness.

The text of his deathbed essay provide the guidance we so desperately need as a people, and an endangered species, to move toward the light despite the darkness of the hour.


I end with quotations from his essay that are so translucent as to make words of commentary or interpretation superfluous:


“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.”


“Continue to build a broad union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.”


“So I say to you walk, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”


6 Responses to “With John Lewis in Stockholm 1969”

  1. Beau Oolayforos August 1, 2020 at 8:39 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    What can we say but Thank You, for this personal vision of a great man? Lewis’s vision of “…a broad union of movements stretching across the globe…” might prefigure, may we hope?, that out of the communal suffering now gripping humanity comes a deeper understanding and empathy for what we share.

  2. Paul Wapner August 2, 2020 at 5:07 pm #

    Beautiful remembrance. I recently listened to 23-year old Lewis’ speech at the March on Washington. Sadly, his remarks are too timely. He spoke at length about racist police brutality, racist incarceration, and racist voter suppression. We have so much work to do to confront systemic racism. Thanks for humanizing Lewis.

    Miss you.

  3. Mike 71 August 3, 2020 at 11:52 pm #

    John Lewis, while an advocate of non-violence, recognized the right of the Vietnamese to armed self-defense against foreign aggression, as recognized under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. Had the proposed re-unification election of 1956, as included in the 1954 Geneva Agreement, taken place, the Vietnamese would have avoided 20 years of “armed struggle” and saved 3.8 million lives. We now know, following the 1971 release of the Pentagon Papers, that the Eisenhower Administration, following the lead of Harry Truman, intended to frustrate that election, as its outcome was certain, an overwhelming victory for Ho Chi Minh.

    Similarly, the Israelis, determined have majority and democratic rule, are engaged in an ongoing “armed struggle” to maintain national independence hard won in 1948-49, 1967 and 1973. Following the Israeli victory in the 1967 “Six Day War,” the Arab League, at its 1967 Khartoum Conference, adopted the infamous “Three Noes (No negotiation, recognition, or peace with Israel),” ensuring that Israel would retain possession of acquired territory and making it impossible to trade land for peace. Note that in 1979, Egypt, in abandoning the “Three Noes,” negotiated a peace agreement with Israel, and following a withdrawal period, resumed sovereign control of the Sinai Peninsula. The Palestinians have yet to abandon the “Three Noes” of Khartoum, ensuring that nothing changes.

    Only under threat of “application. of sovereignty (not “annexation,” as there is no sovereign Palestinian entity),” has the Palestinian Authority offered to resume direct negotiations after a six year hiatus. Mr. Abbas’ offer seeks to start from the 1949 armistice “Green Line,” never recognized as an International Boundary. In diplomacy, as in Golf, there are no “Mulligans (“Do Overs”).” Missed opportunities can almost never be regained, and the Palestinians have missed many as a consistent practice. The proposed Israeli “application of sovereignty” may not take place in the immediate future due to opposition, but that does not means that military rule of acquired land, as required under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, will. end.

    It should be noted that the pre-state leaders of Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh) and Israel (David Ben Gurion) met in a Paris Hotel in 1946 and developed an affinity which continues between their nations to date. Israel has built a Galil (improved version of the AK-47) factory in Vietnam and shared other technologies. There is a developing free trade agreement between Vietnam and Israel, and Vietnam has requested military cooperation with Israel. Since a 1979 Chinese border incursion, which Vietnam repulsed, Vietnam has not been at war. Like the Vietnamese, Israelis aspire to be independent and at peace.


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