My father seldom talked about his time in Mississippi. It was as if he had gone there in a different lifetime, different from the one he inhabited as a father, a high-powered civil litigator and a guy who liked to watch the Philadelphia Eagles with a Rolling Rock in his hand on Sunday afternoons.
That summer of 1967 was as much a part of him as any vital organ, pumping blood through his veins and shaping the way his cerebral cortex processed information. It turned him from a smart kid from a tough neighborhood in West Philly who loved his young family and had illusions of grandeur at that big law firm he’d just joined into a man who saw reality from a very different perspective.
Daddy lived in Baltimore for a year in 1960-61, and he was familiar with the vestiges of separate but equal, including “colored” drinking fountains and bathrooms. But the young man from Philadelphia didn’t know about water hoses trained on college students like him, or fire bombings or beatings on bridges. That type of education wasn’t available to young white men, even those who came from a rapidly changing city up north.
In 1967, Daddy saw little white children spit on elderly black men trying to register to vote. He saw white judges in their robes ignore the innocence of men brought before them and impose sentences based on melanin, not guilt.
He crossed paths with people who, in the daylight, were upstanding citizens but who, at night, hid their identities under white sheets and cowardice. He met Medgar Evers’ brother and saw firsthand the damning effects of bigotry. Most of all, he gained an appreciation for the right to vote, which is the only true weapon of change in a terrifyingly imperfect society.
So while he rarely spoke of his time in Mississippi, registering voters and representing black men in court, it never left him. I would never say he was perfect. Too many things take that off the table. But he saw the depths of imperfection and saw that the only way to change it was through the law. Protests were fine, as long as they were peaceful. But the real agents for change weren’t the ones screaming in the streets, but, rather, the Thurgood Marshalls in their tailored suits arguing at the bar, or the Martin Luther Kings marching peacefully, and forcefully, arm in arm with people who didn’t look like him.
It was the process, and the process needed to be respected, so that it could work.
I thought of these things when I heard the words of Rep. John Lewis, saying he wouldn’t attend Donald Trump’s inauguration. I thought of my father’s anger, expressed in written notes during the year he spent dying of cancer, that little children could be infected with racism. I thought of his conviction that the way to change them was to do it through the peaceful, legal process, mind by mind, soul by soul.
And while I recognized the epic heroism of a man who almost lost his life on Bloody Sunday, I had an internal conversation with my father.
Daddy, I said, I wish you were here, so I could ask whether you agree with the acts of the great civil rights hero. I wonder whether Medgar Evers’ brother, whom you so admired, would have done the same. I wish I knew how to reconcile my awareness of Lewis’ anger — the same anger you must have felt years ago — with your conviction that the thing that matters more than anything else is respect for the law.
Having lived with him for two decades, I think I know how he would have answered, if he could have answered. Reticent as he was about the past, Teddy Flowers would have told me that, with all due respect to the hero of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, there is nothing noble in rejecting the legitimacy of an elected president.
There is nothing good in continuing to undermine his authority, not because of the man but because of the system he represents.
I know it would cut him to the core, this need to criticize a giant of the struggle. But my father, who was, in his own way, a giant, understood what happens when the law is ignored. He saw it in the face of white judges, a hatred and bias that blinded them to the innocence of vulnerable men. And it made him promise he’d work to make sure it stopped happening.
John Lewis is a great man. But he has done something unworthy of his great life.
I hope he reconsiders and honors the system that made his legacy possible.
Christine Flowers is a lawyer and a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may email her at email@example.com.
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