John Lewis, the iconic civil rights hero and Congressman, has just died. I am tempted to say I knew him before he was iconic, but that’s not quite accurate. More important, we both grew up in the same small town, Troy, Alabama, at about the same time, but one of the most reprehensible things about the strict segregation then in force is that it prevented people like us from knowing each other. But he at least knew of my family, which made it easier to meet later in life.
From his memoir of the civil rights movement, Walking With The Wind:
I’ve always felt an affinity with the Jewish community, ever since I was a boy growing up. As long as I could remember, I heard many white people in the South pronounce the word ‘Jew’ in the same way they used the term ‘nigger’, they would spit the word out, like a bad piece of food. There was a small department store in downtown Troy operated by a Jewish merchant. I remember how it stung me when I heard people say things about him – the same kind of things they said about us. [I can’t find my copy of the book, but this passage is quoted here.]
That merchant was my father, or perhaps one of my uncles.
Over the years John and I met a couple of times. In 1986 my wife and I attended a fund raiser for him at the home of a mutual friend, Charles Morgan, Jr. (the former Birmingham and ACLU attorney with whom I worked on EEOC v. Sears, discussed here) in 1986 when he first ran for Congress, defeating another civil rights icon, Julian Bond, in a bitter primary in Georgia’s 5th District. In 1989 my wife, who was then working for Rep. Sam Gejdenson, D, Conn., arranged for him to come to a special showing of an impressive Holocaust-related sculpture by my cousin, George Anthonisen, that was on display in the Rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building for the month of September 1989. (See the remarks of Rep. Peter Kostmayer, D, Pa, here.)
I really regret not trying harder than I did to get together with John to discuss the difference between us, a difference with which readers of this blog will be familiar. We almost got together a few times, but something — usually demands on his time — got in the way. His career was emblematic of the long march the civil rights movement took away from its former commitment to colorblind equality to demanding race-based affirmative action, and I’m sorry I never got to discuss with him why, to mix metaphors, I got off that bus and stayed committed to the original vision.
This is not the place for me to reprise my defenses of that choice. I encourage anyone who may be interested to read, here, my long discussion of the striking conflict between the principled colorblind argument the plaintiffs’ attorneys advocated in Brown v. Board of Education (and in the series of cases leading up to it) and what several of those survivors asserted in denouncing Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion in Parents Involved. which quoted many of them and famously concluded, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” In addition, in a section on “Race and Sects in American History” in a long post on “Separation of Race and State,” I discuss why I believe official colorblindness is required as much or more by the constitution of American society as by the text of the Constitution.
I’m sure I would not have persuaded John, but I would like to have tried.