When black students took their seats at a whites-only lunch counter in Nashville, they jolted leaders in both the white and black communities. Nashville in 1960 carried a well-deserved reputation as a racially liberal Southern town. Black establishment figures were hard at work through legitimate channels to secure equal rights from the courts. These students were stepping out of line, risking their futures, and complicating other civil rights efforts with their disruptive moral stand.
Half a century after John Lewis stepped past that whites-only sign to take his seat at the lunch counter, he now occupies a seat in Congress. Older, wiser, a member of the authority structure he once challenged, Lewis is doing it again.
In a move that channels the philosophy and tactics of the civil rights era, John Lewis this week openly denied the legitimacy of the incoming administration and refused to participate in the inauguration ceremonies. His stand is more than symbolic. Lewis is cutting through the subtleties and evasions, initiating a critical moral division likely to define and harden the fight against the Trump administration.
In the 60’s, lunch counter protestors were attacking segregation on two philosophical fronts. First, they were issuing a shock to the comfortable, apathetic middle. Attacks they endured and the arrests that followed ruined the cherished assumption of justice for all in their community, forcing people to take sides on a volatile issue they would prefer to ignore.
Watching peaceful, dignified students beaten and arrested for the simple act of sitting at a lunch counter gave lie to common assumptions about the nature of segregation. Being confronted with these scenes stripped away the community’s sense of moral distance. White citizens who hadn’t devoted a moment’s thought in their entire lives to the meaning and impact of Jim Crow, now found themselves forced into a morally charged cleaving of allegiance. Their willingness to suffer injustice and indignity burned down the middle spaces in which ordinary people, black and white, felt free to live out their lives in carefully cultivated denial.
This mirror effect was on full display in Lewis’ protest last week. Had his comments been ignored or met with a measured response, his words would hardly have registered. Instead, Trump himself took to Twitter to play the bully yet again. Thanks to Lewis’ courage Trump spent the MLK holiday weekend demeaning a national civil rights hero.
That act of exposure at the Nashville lunch counter fifty years ago created a second, more serious problem, one that demanded a remedy on an urgent timeline. By taking their rightful place at the lunch counter in defiance of “southern customs,” they were also challenging the fundamental legitimacy of law and cultural norms. Lewis referenced that philosophical problem specifically in his comments about Trump this week.
A challenge to legitimacy is a challenge to civilized order itself. That challenge must either be quickly resolved in favor of justice or suppressed, but it cannot be ignored. A society premised on laws can tolerate much, but it cannot survive a morally persuasive challenge to the legitimacy of its laws.
Lewis’ challenge then and now sparks a heated response from the middle, and not merely because it strips our comforts. By issuing a direct challenge to the legitimacy of our system, he is challenging our capacity to use law itself to remedy this situation. Just as he did as a student in 1960, Congressman Lewis has strapped a time-bomb beneath the more patient efforts of others to “work within the system” to remedy injustice.
Again, it is helpful to look back at the factors that made Lewis’ actions so controversial in the black community in 60’s. Protests like these posed a serious problem for black leaders. The protestors knew that they would be arrested. Having an arrest record was a grave matter for anyone, a blot on one’s character. For the cream of the black community, having its most promising, elite college students embrace “lawless” behavior was a threat to the community’s future.
Those already heavily invested in the fight for civil rights, represented primarily in the NAACP and similar groups, saw promise in the patient pursuit of court victories. They had already won legal victories tearing down housing segregation and school segregation. They were actively fighting through the system to establish the basic right to travel and participate in commerce.
At the level of public opinion, efforts to win justice through court actions hinged on their portrayal of obedient black citizens patiently petitioning for their rights at law. After twenty years of sustained effort, younger activists were growing restless. Each new legal victory by law-abiding black citizens was blunted, evaded, and finally dismantled by white authorities bound by no such scruples. Gains achieved by law-abiding blacks through the legitimate channels of the law were ignored or actively undone by the active resistance and even violence in local white communities.
Segregated seating on buses had been ruled unconstitutional years before, but cities all over Tennessee still retained the illegal practice. Nashville restaurants were under no legal requirement to segregate patrons by race. Segregation in that form was not a law. It was a custom. In other words, the efforts by the NAACP and other groups to challenge unjust laws were valid and right, but by themselves they would never have changed conditions on the ground. Lunch counter protestors were not arrested for violating Jim Crow laws. They were arrested, often after being assaulted by whites who were never prosecuted, for crimes like “disturbing the peace” or “disorderly conduct.” “Legitimacy” had become a weapon leveraged by the white community against peaceful blacks seeking to exercise their moral rights.
While some groups fought to win rights through legitimate channels, Lewis and other protestors were demonstrating the fundamental moral illegitimacy of the entire political structure, including the police and the courts. That protest proved far more potent and dangerous than anything that might ever have been achieved in court. John Lewis sacrificed his education, his career, and his even his body to expose the lie of legitimacy that protected Jim Crow.
He is doing it again.
Our faith in the power of our legitimate democratic institutions to enforce the law and protect justice is a cornerstone of civilized order. When Lewis last week attacked the legitimacy of the incoming administration, critics on both sides expressed concern. It is one thing to disagree with a policy, but issuing a challenge to legitimacy is an attack on the republic itself.
Trump did, in fact, prevail in the contest for the White House even though he lost the election by a substantial margin. While it’s true that he received significant, criminal foreign help along with illegitimate and probably illegal assistance from our internal security services, it is dangerous to strip the office and its inhabitant from legitimacy. To do so risks an existential crisis.
That crisis is already upon us. As he did on the Freedom Rides, John Lewis is simply forcing us to confront this crisis in an honest light.
For months Trump has promised to harass the press and limit First Amendment rights. He has threatened specific news outlets, journalists, and even the owner of the Washington Post. He has promised to unleash a wave of racial and religious persecution. He has threatened political opponents and sided with violent racist groups. He has goaded his followers into acts of violence against opponents, right from the main stage of his rallies.
He has utterly disregarded every norm on which the legitimacy of our republic and the respect of its leadership rests. Challenged on any subject he issues confirmable, provable lies without consequence. His campaign has been cited for a practically unimaginable 1000+ violations of campaign funding laws, allegations for which they have offered no response and no defense. He has not only refused to divest himself of his businesses while in the White House, he has refused to even disclose his business interests. After a shady career marked by scams, bankruptcies, almost innumerable business failures, and a mountain of legal problems, he enters the most powerful office in the republic in defiance of every standard of ethics.
Will our “legitimate” institutions protect us? Not without massive public resistance. When the Office of Government Ethics acted to protect our interests by insisting that Trump comply with ethics standards, our “legitimate” Republican elected officials threatened retribution against the agency’s Director. Absent a public outcry and a willingness by ordinary people to resist, Trump will dismantle democratic norms with impunity. Anyone who could watch Trump’s “press conference” last week without seeing the future of representative government in jeopardy, could just as easily have watched crowds beating Freedom Riders and find room to complain about “agitators.”
Relatively comfortable, established figures, both black and white, were annoyed when John Lewis challenged the fundamental moral legitimacy of lunch counters, bus depots, and voter registrars. His actions were disruptive and dangerous. And he was right. His challenge to the legitimacy of an unjust system helped create the modern world.
John Lewis is right again. The same class of people who expressed concern over his “reckless” actions fifty years ago are doing it again. Democrat or Republican, conservative, liberal, libertarian or progressive, we face a threat to democratic order unlike anything in living memory. Instead of complaining about Lewis’ language, we need to match Lewis’ commitment to freedom and justice. Hiding behind some veneer of imagined legitimacy will merely accelerate our decline.