John Lewis is known as the conscience of the Congress, his tenure there embodying the values of compassion, justice, and non-violence learned directly from his mentor Dr. King.
This was particularly conspicuous during the 90s when Lewis held the line against the triangulatory gambits of the Clinton administration, one of only four members of the Congressional Black Caucus to vote no on welfare reform, the crime bill and drug war legislation.
Doing so put him in direct conflict with first lady Hillary Clinton who actively lobbied for these policies, in doing so notoriously referring to a generation of black youth as “superpredators” needing to be “brought to heel.”
Two decades later, it was understandable that, in the face of a terrifying far right juggernaut, Lewis was willing to accept Clinton’s expressions of regret and, in the interest of party unity, endorse her as the party front runner. What did take many aback was Lewis’s advocacy crossing the line into negative attacks on Clinton’s progressive challenger Bernie Sanders.
These occurred at a crucial moment in the campaign when Sanders, coming off strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, was competing in southern primaries.
There, African American voters would be decisive and Sanders’s supporters had reason to be hopeful. As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, Sanders had served as Vice President of the UC chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality and had on two occasions been arrested demonstrating against segregated housing. In contrast, at the time Clinton was a supporter of reactionary Republican Barry Goldwater.
It therefore was a considerable shock that Lewis’s response to a reporter’s question about Sanders record in the civil rights movement conveyed the exact opposite of the truth:
“Well, to be very frank . . . I never saw him, I never met him,” Lewis said. “But I met Hillary Clinton. I met President Clinton.”
Lewis would later claim that he “never intended to disparage Bernie Sanders” or meant to suggest that he had met Clinton at the time. In fact, it would be more than a decade until he would make her acquaintance, he admitted.
Lewis’s dismissal of Sanders not only raised questions about Lewis’s integrity, it also cast doubt on his commitment to core progressive values. In rejecting Sanders’s plan for free college education, Lewis argued that it was “the wrong message to send to any group.” That’s because, according to Lewis
“There’s not anything free in America. We all have to pay for something. Education is not free. Health care is not free. Food is not free. Water is not free. I think it’s very misleading to say to the American people, we’re going to give you something free.”
These right wing “skin in the game” nostrums would be expected from the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, or Paul Ryan, but not from an acolyte of Dr. King.
Graduates at Bard College where Lewis will deliver the commencement address this spring are plenty aware of the price they pay for developing their skills and talents.
Forced to repay five figure student loans in a depressed economy, for them, “skin in the game” looks a lot more like a pound of flesh. They were understandably thrilled by Sanders’s call to revamp education financing, passionately supporting his campaign.
And they were profoundly dispirited by Democratic leaders such as Lewis having assiduously worked to undermine it.
They have already too many experiences of boomer icons whose failures paved the way for the wreck of a world they will be forced to inhabit.
They are in desperate need of hope that one of the few remaining direct links to Dr. King can provide.
Lewis should use the occasion to recognize that it was Sanders supporters who embodied Dr. King’s vision, and Clintonite neoliberalism which has been the main barrier to its realization.
He should recognize that it was the grassroots activists carrying out Dr. King’s legacy within Sanders’s campaign who provided the only hope to defeat the reactionary right while the corps of elite pundits, high priced consultants and Democratic Party functionaries advising Clinton were hopelessly at sea. And he should make clear that party leaders will place them at the center, not relegate them to the periphery, as they have for two political generations.
A livable future depends on Lewis and others recommitting themselves to Dr. King’s radical vision and acting on it.