In July 30, a beloved and respected black American was buried after a week of fitting tribute. Several times during his time on earth this man placed his mortal life in precarious balance such that others might live with the justice and dignity too long denied them though such things are the indefeasible rights of every human being.
That same day a different kind of black American celebrity died. At best, he perished a discredited figure; to many, he cut the swath of one who betrayed his origins that he may acquire a few extra dollars he otherwise would not have obtained.
One was a child of valor. The other was a child of vanity. This is a short tale of two black men, the hero and the knave. It reveals why we are as we are, a people who have travelled long and far yet still have longer and farther to go before attaining safe harbor.
Congress John Lewis was born in Troy, Alabama. This was the heart of the heart of the Deep South. It was also cotton country. The once fertile land had turned hardscrabble due to decades of overuse.
Lewis was born into a poor rural family just 75 years out of slavery. Along with his parents and his siblings, he picked cotton mostly on lands owned by whites much as his enslaved forebearers had done. It was backbreaking, hand-bloodying tedium.
If there is but one vision of the United States that captures the essential history of this society it is the harsh tableau of shabbily-clad black folk bent over with face to the ground, sacks strapped across their straining backs as they toiled row after endless row under the strong Alabama, filling those sacks with the cotton they picked.
The long century of black toil in those cotton fields was a vital element in America’s rise to global economic power.
Picking cotton did not well commend itself to the intelligent and restless Lewis. He wanted to learn and go to school. Instead of picking the white man’s cotton, he also wanted to fight the injustice that demanded black folk work those fields for the immense profit of people who hated them. I understand this well. Like Lewis, I too was born in Alabama; but, unlike him my parents had come from the north and I was born nearly two decades after him.
After having volunteered, my father had moved up the ranks to become an officer in the nation’s army while John’s parents had been drafted into the dreary army of Alabama sharecroppers.
Being a black boy in Alabama during that era meant you were to swallow more indignity than a child ought to bear, John Lewis endured far worse than anything required of me. I never picked cotton or went to bed hungry except if my parents were punishing me for some childhood indiscretion I might have committed. Over a half century has passed since then. Yet, when I close my eyes, I still see it, the unjust tableau.
With my face pressed against the back window as we drove the county roads, I stared from the car, my eyes fixed on young and old black people doing slave labor in the fields. I would watch as one image fades into the distance only to be replaced by another as we passed by the next patch of cotton.
Every now and then, we would see a prison chain gang working along the roadside. I saw these dreary looking black men clad in soiled and tattered prison garb shackled one to another in a long row of chains and sorrow swinging their pickaxes under the stern and watchful eye of rifle wielding white oversees in clean if not always crisp uniforms.
Those cotton toilers and chained men were of me and I was them. I did not know any of these unfortunates yet I knew they were my world. Every time I saw them, my heart would ache a deep and strong ache for which my young mind could not find words to express. I just kept silent and cried inside at the wrong done to my people.
Often I would wonder who was worse off, the cotton people or the convicted ones. Had the convicted ones once been cotton people who tried to run? Most of times, the cotton people were too far away for me to see their faces. All you could see was their images against the setting sun. But sometimes, just sometimes, their labor would bring them close enough to the roadside.
One time driving by the fields, the eyes of a chocolate-skinned little girl met the eyes of the six-year-old boy in the car. Separated by so much, we were joined by our color. In that one instance, I felt as if I knew her and that she was more of a friend than those white kids I was forced to play with on the Army base.
We instantly smiled and waved at each other as if we had done it a thousand times before. I twisted my neck, continuing looking her way until my neck could twist no farther and our car had driven too far down the road. I never saw her again. Even now, I wonder what became of her and the rest of the people. Did she escape the drudgery? Was the little chocolate-skinned girl struggling with that large bag of cotton move tied to the land by some insatiable malevolency? All those nameless toiling souls who should never have be treated as harshly as they had been are my family which I had both gained and lost at the same time.
After all these years, I still think of them. I still see them. I still shed a tear. But there is no time to cry the fullness of the cry I feel. We still have too much work to do.
John Lewis was driven by this spirit, even more so. Despite the racism and poverty arrayed against him, Lewis escaped the cotton fields. He did so with his humanity and large soul intact. The young Lewis enrolled in Fisk university, a black institution. He went there not just for personal advancement. He had bigger dreams in mind. He would devote himself to winning equality for his people. At the time, there was no more urgent or more dangerous a vocation for a young black man in the Deep South.
He became a founding leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC was formed initially as an informal student arm of the Dr. King-led SCLC. While King’s group gained the headlines, SNCC would quickly show organizational independence and become more proficient in actual grassroots organizing and projects than King’s organization. In many ways, the university students led the way and kind and the rest of the preachers followed. John Lewis is due much of the credit for SNCC’s performance.
Lewis and SNCC organized the first successful sit-ins that led to desegregation of stores and eateries in the south. Taking his life in his hands, he was the first of the freedom fighters who put themselves at risk so desegregate bus services and interstate transport in America. While Dr. King gave the most famous speech during the 1963 March on Washington, Lewis was the youngest speaker that day and his intervention was second only to king’s statement. Lewis would become the youngest member of King’s inner circle.
As such, Lewis would return to Alabama to fight for voting rights. He led the first attempted march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital. Upon crossing the infamous Edmund Pettis bridge, the marchers were met by evil force. The racist state government leaders unleashed its uniformed goons on the mobile but serene procession.
In an orgy of violent chaos, police and state troopers waded into marchers attacking the meek and mild. Attempting to shield a female marcher with his body, Lewis was pummeled viciously about the head. The police clubs had fractured his skull. He almost died that day. His blood was not spilled in vain.
The violence forced the federal government to act. The march would be repeated this time without violence. The historic voting rights act of 1965 was a direct result of this sacrifice. Without that act, few of the black politicians you now see, including President Obama, would have run let alone been elected into office.
Lewis would be elected to Congress in 1986. He served there until his death. As a congressman, he remained a staunch defender of voter rights and a fighter against racial inequality. He was a man for the people and a hero for the times,
Herman Cain died the day Lewis was buried. I will sy less about Cain than Lewis simply because there is less to say. While mindful of our cultural norms regarding criticism of the dead, I also must be mindful of the truth for we must realize certain things so that we overcome what has been set in our pathway to overcome.
Cain was born in Tennessee, a neighboring state to Alabama. He was born five years after Lewis. Growing up in the city of Memphis he must have faced his share of discrimination but not to the extent of Lewis.
Cain attended prestigious Morehouse College, as Dr. King had previously done. Cain was a mediocre student. He also came upon a different view of the world than a King or a Lewis. A mediocrity with a desire to be noticed, Cain would not be able to rely on talent and ability alone to gain the personal richesand attention he craved.
The man cared precious little for the advancement of the race in comparison to his own personal ambitions. Thus, he would use the progress made through the civil rights movement in a most perverse way. He would climb the corporate ladder and become a darling to racist America by becoming a vocal “anti-black black” man. As such he would cast aside centuries of racism as if they never happened. Instead, he would lop all of the troubles of the black predicament entirely on black people themselves. In conservative circles, he was a rare and precious commodity, a black man not only willing to absolve them of racism but going so far as to suggest that their racial practices were justified. He was willing to imply that his own black people were pathologically unfit.
Cain’s greatest asset was his ability to imbibe implicitly racist screed then to repeat it louder and longer than its originators. He was paid generously for his services. He rose to become the CEO of a famous fast food chain.
He also ran for the Republican Party presidential nomination 2012. He was the black Trump before Trump, a boisterous showman of no great substance but of a large yet fragile ego. Spewing a hodgepodge of simplistic solutions to complex issues, Cain temporarily became the Republican front runner after a few primaries.
Then just as he thought he was being seriously taken as a candidate, party operatives publicly released scandalous information that caused him to scuttle his own campaign. The black minstrel had deigned to think he could become king. The racists who run the Republican show would never hitch their hopes on a black counterfeit. They only had to wait four years for the apparition of the Great White Hope to appear in the form of Donald Trump.
Cain would become one of Trump’s most vociferous and loyal supporters. For this, he would pay dearly. Trump nominated Cain for the Fedral Reserve Board but the gesture came to naught after it collapsed under heavy condemnation that Cain was singularly unqualified and even dangerous for the important financial position.
Cain still maintained his love of Trump. When COVID came, he did as Trump said. Mask-less and without regard to keeping sanitary distance between him and others, Cain attended the controversial Tulsa rally for Trump. Within two weeks, he was diagnosed with COVID. Now he is dead.
Both now gone, these two vastly different men encapsulate why black America is as it is. Lewis saw himself as holding a special duty at a special time but never saw himself as special. Cain never did anything special but nonetheless viewed himself as great beyond measure. Lewis wanted a better world. Once he got paid, Cain was happy with the world as it is. However, both made mistakes we are obligated to correct.