Meacham tells this story with his customary eloquence. And by decentering Martin Luther King Jr. in favor of SNCC, he allows less famous activists to come to the fore, including the Rev. James Lawson, who led workshops in Nashville on the teachings of Gandhi, and Diane Nash, a student leader and key organizer of the sit-ins and Freedom Rides. Black elders like Thurgood Marshall warned the young radicals that their militant tactics could be politically counterproductive. At the March on Washington, the organizers persuaded Lewis to remove incendiary language from his prepared remarks, including a reference to marching “through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did” (though he planned to add “nonviolently”). But the movement’s growing militancy, spearheaded by SNCC, and the violent resistance it encountered, created a national crisis that propelled a reluctant federal government to embrace the cause of Black freedom. By 1965, with new laws prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations and voting, the legal foundations of Jim Crow had been destroyed.
Even as the movement achieved its greatest triumphs, however, it faced a crisis as urban uprisings, beginning in Harlem in 1964, drew attention to the economic inequality civil rights legislation could not cure. Nonviolent demonstrations and willingness to suffer beatings and face mass arrests, strategies successful in the South, were not well suited to confronting what is today called systemic racism in the rest of the country. The enemy was no longer Sheriff Jim Clark and his Alabama storm troopers but faceless bureaucrats in banks and real estate companies that redlined Black neighborhoods, school boards that drew district boundaries to perpetuate segregation and police officers whose brutality occurred far from the glare of television cameras.
In 1964, the Democratic National Convention refused to replace Mississippi’s official all-white delegation with the interracial one chosen by the state’s Freedom Democratic Party. “As far as I’m concerned,” Lewis later wrote, this all but forgotten episode was “the turning point of the civil rights movement.” It convinced many Black members of SNCC that they could not trust white allies and needed to make decisions for themselves. For Lewis, the new mood took a personal turn in 1966 when he was ousted as SNCC leader in favor of Stokely Carmichael, who popularized the slogan Black Power as an alternative to Lewis’s vision of an integrated Beloved Community. White America, Meacham notes, found Black Power deeply threatening, even though “White Power had been acceptable since Jamestown.” Troubled by internal division and F.B.I. harassment, SNCC did not long outlive the 1960s.
His removal, Meacham writes, devastated Lewis. But it became a formative moment in his career. He spent the next two years in New York City, where he came under the influence of Bayard Rustin, who insisted that the movement must turn to political engagement. In 1968, Lewis joined the campaign of Robert F. Kennedy for the Democratic presidential nomination. Eventually, he would be elected to the House of Representatives from Atlanta, serving in Congress for more than three decades.
Unfortunately, apart from a brief afterword by Lewis himself, “His Truth Is Marching On” ends in 1968 with Kennedy’s assassination. We get no sense of how Lewis made the transition from protest to elective politics, or what he accomplished in the House. Perhaps inevitably, Lewis’s conduct was less saintly once he became a politician. During a race for Congress in 1986, he unfairly denigrated his opponent, the civil rights veteran Julian Bond, for having done nothing more than put out news releases while “I was on the front lines.”