Matthew Rozsa recognizes that John Lewis is a civil rights hero – and laments his dishonest distortion of Bernie Sanders’ and Hillary Clinton’s civil rights records.
It isn’t fun to accuse someone like Rep. John Lewis of being a liar. Without question, Lewis is a legitimate living hero, a man whose legacy as a civil rights activists in the 1960s has earned him a lasting place of honor in American history books.
That said, the tremendous respect which he is due for his achievements in the past does not entitle him to a free pass for dishonesty in the present. This brings us to his recent attack against Bernie Sanders – and, more specifically, his attempted distortion of Hillary Clinton’s own record.
During a news conference discussing the Congressional Black Caucus Political Action Committee’s endorsement of Clinton, Lewis heavily implied that Sanders was lying about his work as a civil rights protester. “To be very frank, I never saw him, I never met him,” he insisted. “I chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for three years, from 1963-1966. I was involved in sit-ins, Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, the March from Selma to Montgomery.” As a seeming afterthought, he then added “… but I met Hillary Clinton, I met President Clinton.”
This statement can be divided into two segments – the one implicitly attacking Sanders, and the one directly praising the Clintons. While the former is certainly sleazy, it doesn’t quite fail the sniff test. Technically we have no way of knowing whether Lewis personally met Sanders during his three years as chairman of the SNCC. What we do know is that Sanders’ involvement in those civil rights protests has been proved enough that, just like Lewis’ own record, it deserves to be treated as an undeniable fact. In 1962, Sanders was arrested for protesting segregation in Chicago’s public schools, with the local police even labeling him as an outside agitator for his efforts. Indeed, a photograph showing him at a sit-in – which one “Washington Post” reporter tried to debunk – has been subsequently verified, rendering his involvement beyond dispute. One year later, Sanders participated in the legendary March on Washington in which he personally listened to Martin Luther King deliver his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
The problem with Lewis’ statements about Sanders isn’t that they are flat-out lies, but rather that they’re deliberately deceptive. Because the Clinton campaign sees Sanders’ reputation for ideological “purity” as being his greatest strength, they have unsurprisingly focused on undermining that narrative as a way of peeling off his supporters. By mentioning that he never personally met Sanders during his career as a civil rights protester, Lewis clearly intended to imply that Sanders either never did what he claims to have done or did not play a particularly large role. What he neglects to mention is that (1) Sanders’ work in Chicago occurred in 1962, before Lewis’ chairmanship of the SNCC began and (2) thousands of people participated in the March on Washington, the vast majority of whom Lewis would never have been able to meet. By leaving out this important context, Lewis managed to smear Sanders’ reputation for purity on civil rights issues without openly slandering the man’s good name.
On the other hand, it is impossible to believe that Lewis didn’t deliberately lie about knowing the Clintons during his work as a civil rights protester. To understand why this is the case, one need not look any further than Lewis’ own words in “Conversations: William Jefferson Clinton, from Hope to Harlem”:
“The first time I heard of Bill Clinton was in the early ’70s. I was living in Georgia, working for the Southern Poverty Law organization, when someone told me about this young, emerging leader in Arkansas who served as attorney general, then later became governor.”
“I think I paid more attention to him at the 1988 Democratic Convention, when he was asked to introduce the presidential candidate and took up far more time than was allotted to him. After he became involved with the Democratic Leadership Council, I would run into him from time to time. But it was one of his aides, Rodney Slater, who actually introduced us in 1991 and asked me if I would support his presidency.”
To be sure, Lewis doesn’t mention Hillary Clinton once in these accounts, but considering that she spent the years from 1963 to 1966 supporting segregationist Barry Goldwater and generally identifying as a Republican, it is doubtful that she participated in civil rights protests at all (and certainly if she had, it stands to reason that Lewis would have brought it up when being interviewed about when he first met the Clintons). What we do know is that Lewis’ assertion that he met Bill Clinton while serving as chairman of the SNCC directly contradicts his own earlier accounts – even as, rather conveniently, it fits perfectly into the Clinton campaign’s agenda of undermining Sanders’ left-wing credential while bolstering their own.
I can’t speak for Lewis, and thus I can’t explain why he would undermine his own credibility in order to advance the Clintons’ political ambitions. What I do know is that, although he deserves the respect of every American for risking his life in order to advance the cause of racial equality, that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be held accountable for his unscrupulous rhetoric today. If I’m going to be convinced that Clinton is a more suitable candidate for the presidency than Sanders, it will need to be based on facts. Lewis has not only failed to provide any, but has made it impossible for me to take his word on these matters in the future.