JOHN McCAIN deplored them, Barack Obama distanced himself from them, but the comments that Representative John Lewis of Georgia delivered on Oct. 11 may turn out to be some of the most trenchant — and generous — of the campaign. Mr. Lewis charged Mr. McCain and Sarah Palin with “sowing the seeds of hatred and division” in their fervently red-meat rallies, not unlike “a governor of the State of Alabama named George Wallace” whose race-bating rhetoric, Mr. Lewis noted, contributed to the 1963 bombing of the Birmingham church in which four young girls were killed.
The context of Mr. Lewis’s critique is not as has been presented: a saint of the civil rights movement likening a decorated war hero to an infamous racist. Rather, it was a collegial (if rough) caution from one brother to another, about a third, politicians all.
Mr. Lewis’s authority to chastise Mr. McCain comes not from his Bloody Sunday stand on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965, but rather from his subsequent record on the hustings. His mettle was tested not only in Selma but also in three tough campaigns, characterized by tactics of personal destruction.
The first was his race in 1966 to retain the chairmanship of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. For three years, Mr. Lewis had used his office to promote SNCC’s early emphasis on black and white activists working hand in hand. But by 1966, that inclusive and nonviolent climate was under siege. Peaceful marchers found themselves shadowed by a volunteer bodyguard of shotgun-wielding black militants, and a group known as the Atlanta Separatists was demanding that all whites be expelled from the civil rights leadership.
Things came to a head at SNCC’s convention in May that year, when late-night, back-room maneuvering elevated Stokely Carmichael to the chairmanship, ousting Mr. Lewis. Whites were purged from the organization, and its longtime white supporters were vilified. Carmichael’s successor, H. Rap Brown, changed the group’s name to Student National Coordinating Committee and directly advocated violence. Mr. Lewis’s long labor for racial comity lay in tatters.
In 1982, Mr. Lewis, along with other newly elected black Atlanta city councilmen, faced sound trucks rolling through their neighborhoods accusing them of race treason for not supporting a major road project favored by Mayor Andrew Young. Mr. Lewis stood his ground. He confided to me, then a reporter for The Atlanta Constitution, how upset he was at some of the bullying aimed his way.
In his first bid for Congress, in 1986, the battle that counted was the Democratic primary, where he faced off against Julian Bond. Mr. Lewis was running behind, crippled, some said, by his lack of eloquence. Partisan portrayals (not necessarily perpetrated by Mr. Bond) rewriting his role in civil rights history angered him, and hardened his steel. He fought his way into office by outworking his opponent and — eloquently enough — outdebating him. He brought to Congress not only a visceral understanding of what it’s like to be clubbed into unconsciousness, but also a deep familiarity with the damage inflicted by take-no-prisoners political campaigning.
So to call Mr. Lewis simply a Freedom Rider is to give incomplete acknowledgment to his political struggles.
Likewise, to describe George Wallace as a simple racist is to give his biography short shrift. As a circuit court judge in the 1950s, Wallace was respectful toward blacks, and as a legislator from 1947 to 1953, he was a moderate. In 1948, when Strom Thurmond led the Southern delegations out of the Democratic convention to protest the party’s pioneer civil rights plank, Wallace stayed in his seat. Though no fan of the plank, he was yet more Democrat than demagogue, and was instrumental in rallying the other Southern alternate delegates to save the convention’s quorum, and pass its platform.
He might have carried a tolerant message into the Alabama governor’s mansion in 1958, but he lost the race after spurning the support of the Ku Klux Klan (which then backed his primary opponent, John Patterson) and being endorsed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Sadly for Wallace’s state, his region, his nation and himself, he did not respond as John Lewis did after his defeat by Carmichael. Mr. Lewis, whenever confronted with calls to divisiveness, chose to redouble his commitment to reason and tolerance. After his loss to Mr. Patterson, Wallace is said to have turned to an aide and declared, “I was out-niggered ... and I’ll never be out-niggered again.”
After Wallace finally won the governorship in 1962, his administration was never as race-hostile as his campaign appeals implied; black leaders found his office door open, and often his mind, too. But he would eternally pay the price for the methods he used to gain that office.
I once saw that price on vivid display, at a Wallace for president rally in downtown Boston. In 1975, that city was contorted by its own race war over school busing, and the enormous two-tier assembly hall was packed. It was an angry crowd — a black television cameraman was punched as he walked up the aisle. In the middle of Wallace’s remarks, there was a loud explosion, and Wallace, who had been paralyzed by a bullet three years earlier, fell forward from his wheelchair into safety behind the podium.
The noise was caused by a crashing klieg light, knocked over in a fracas as a heckler in the balcony was attacked by the crowd. As Wallace clambered back into his chair, his supporters beat the protester bloody and tried to dump him over the balcony rail. “Just an undecided voter, folks. Just an undecided voter,” Wallace pleaded into his microphone, but there was no quelling the fire. “Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!” people in the hall thundered, until the man was rescued — barely — by Secret Service agents.
In the final debate of this presidential campaign, faced with John McCain’s demand that he repudiate Mr. Lewis’s analogy, Barack Obama said he didn’t think his opponent was another George Wallace, and that sounds reasonable if you assume Mr. Lewis was referring to Wallace the vile racist, not the more tragic Wallace, the one-time straight campaigner who bartered conviction for expedience when he thought a raw appeal to division could gain him crucial votes.
It would behoove everyone in the current race for America’s highest offices to pay attention to what Mr. Lewis was really saying, and judge it for its provenance in his long experience. Better than perhaps any living American, he knows that courage on the front line is one thing, and on the campaign stage quite another, knows how tiny and harmless the seeds of fanaticism can seem, how one cry of “kill him” can crescendo into a chorus that can’t be stifled. Mr. Lewis might be deemed generous in wishing on no other member of his profession the harrowed look I witnessed in George Wallace’s eyes as he struggled up off the floor in Boston and beheld what a hell he’d wrought.