The Bridge: From John Lewis to Barack Obama

In a week that is book-ended by our annual celebration of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the passing of the baton from this country’s first African American president to Donald Trump, I suppose that it should come as no surprise that we witnessed a verbal battle between Rep. John Lewis and the president-elect.

It all started with an interview on Meet the Press.

In an exclusive interview with NBC News’ “Meet the Press,” Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said he does not believe Donald Trump is a “legitimate president,” citing Russian interference in last year’s election.

Asked whether he would try to forge a relationship with the president-elect, Lewis said that he believes in forgiveness, but added, “it’s going to be very difficult. I don’t see this president-elect as a legitimate president.”

When pressed to explain why, he cited allegations of Russian hacks during the campaign that led to the release of internal documents from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign co-chairman, John Podesta.

“I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected. And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton,” Lewis told NBC News.

Trump was quick to hit back on Twitter.

Trump demonstrated his ignorance – both in saying that Rep. Lewis’s district is crime infested and falling apart, as well as a suggestion that the Congressman is all talk, no action or results. Just in case you are not aware of how wrong Trump was on the former charge:

The district that Trump described as in “horrible shape” includes Emory University and Morehouse College, as well as Spelman College and Georgia Tech. The Coca-Cola headquarters is just one of that district’s many, high-profile corporate residents. Lewis represents Midtown’s shiny residential high-rises and the pricey Intown neighborhoods filled with renovated homes, the Beltline and Ponce City Market.

The typical cost of a house in the most sought-after neighborhoods within Georgia’s 5th Congressional District ranges from over $500,000 to $1 million, said Bill Adams, whose real estate company has operated in the district’s neighborhoods for years. “Certainly there are major pockets of poverty, but the central core of Atlanta is flourishing — big time,” Adams said. “He’s thinking about a different Atlanta than the one I live and work in.”

Most of us are aware of Rep. Lewis’s history that is directly the opposite of all talk, not action. David Remnick captures the most significant moment when Lewis and other protesters faced down Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965.

Given one minute to disperse by the troopers, Lewis had the protesters kneel in prayer. They would not leave. “And then they were upon us.” The troopers charged, and the first among them brought down a nightstick on the left side of Lewis’s skull. His legs gave way. “I really thought I was going to die,” he said. He curled up on the ground, as he had been trained, in a “prayer for protection” position.” The trooper hit him again. And then came the canisters of tear gas. His skull fractured, his coat a mess of mud and blood, Lewis refused to go to the hospital. Barely conscious, he reached Brown Chapel, the headquarters of the movement, ascended to the pulpit, and told those gathered, many of them still gasping from the tear gas, “I don’t know how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam. I don’t see how he can send troops to the Congo. I don’t see how he can send troops to Africa, and he can’t send troops to Selma, Alabama. Next time we march, we may have to keep going when we get to Montgomery. We may have to go on to Washington.”

That night, an audience of forty-eight million people watched a fifteen-minute report on Selma. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had urged civil-rights leaders to force his hand if they wanted him to support a voting-rights bill, now saw that it was time to promote one. On national television, he compared Selma to Lexington and Concord as a “turning point in man’s unending search for freedom.” And the Voting Rights Act—now under assault in many ways—became law.

No matter how many times you hear that story – it is gripping. Notice that, after having his skull fractured by a trooper’s baton, Lewis is immediately talking about “next time we march.” It’s hard for most of us to even comprehend that kind of determination and courage. And when it comes to results…the Voting Rights Act – a milestone in American history.

It was particularly poignant to read Remnick’s account of all this. Back in 2010 he published the book, “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.” The inside flap on the front of the hardcover version is the iconic photo of John Lewis staring down Alabama state troopers, and on the back is a photo of Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Remnick starts with the history of that confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and demonstrates it’s connection to the life and rise of Barack Obama. He ends with a simple story of something that happened eight years ago this Friday.

Obama had kept a wall of heroes at the Hart Senate Office Building down the streets: a portrait of Gandhi at his spinning wheel; Thurgood Marshall in his judicial robes; Nelson Mandela reclining in a golden armchair, his cane at his side; Martin Luther King, Jr.,  at the microphone; Alexander Gardner’s photograph of a war-weary Lincoln. Obama also displayed a framed cover of Life magazine from March, 1965; it showed a long line of demonstrators, led by John Lewis, about to confront the Alabama state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Lewis had signed and framed the cover and given it to Obama as a gift. Now, at the luncheon following the swearing-in ceremony, Lewis approached Obama with a sheet of paper and, to mark the occasion, he asked him to sign it. The forty-fourth President of the United States wrote, “Because of you, John. Barack Obama.”

History would go to on to show the two of these men marching across that bridge again to celebrate 50th anniversary of that confrontation, where Obama gave one of the most memorable speeches of his presidency. He opened that speech with these words:

It is a rare honor in this life to follow one of your heroes. And John Lewis is one of my heroes.

On Friday, the baton will be passed on to someone who obviously has no appreciation of this history or the role that John Lewis played in creating that bridge. I think I can speak for millions of Americans when I simply say, “Sad!”

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.