Let me preface this essay with a statement: I am for the liberation of ALL people, and in seeking for the liberation of all people recognize that the African and those who have been robbed from the continent have been the most historically oppressed. There may not be a singular movement that has endured as much pain, struggle, and resistance as the Black people of the United States. In the quest for liberation there have been many approaches adopted by Black people in hopes of freedom; spiritual, philosophical and resistance beliefs have never been a monolith amongst Black folks. With that being said, I understand this essay may evoke anger, but I simply ask you to keep an open mind.
I felt compelled to respond to the funeral of Mr. John Lewis, as I felt the entire gathering was a farce and white-washed historical account of what Lewis stood for, as well as the struggle for Black liberation in the United States.
“We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of … we come here today with a great sense of misgiving.”
-John Lewis, March on Washington 1963
If you have not read Lewis’ historical March on Washington speech, take the time to do so. John Lewis stood for Black liberation, he spoke with Black Power politics. To allow Bill Clinton and George Bush to speak at the funeral was an attempt to pacify Lewis’ politics.
Is this the same Bill Clinton who signed into law the 1994 Crime Bill? The champions of the term “super-predators,” mandatory minimums, and use of prison slave labor while serving as the governor of Arkansas. And really? George Bush? When did Black folks start accepting him, as even a friend to Black people? I know we have distanced ourselves from Kanye recently but Ye wasn’t lying back in 2005. I can remember how proudly Black folks spoke in defiance of Bush and yet his transition into life after presidency has wielded him a new reputation and romanticized image of his time in office.
The performative white allyship was none more evident in Clinton’s attack on Kwame Ture, who he intentionally mis-named and referenced as Stokley Carmichael. During the funeral Cliton stated, “and I say there were two or three years there, where the movement went a little too far towards Stokely, but in the end, John Lewis prevailed.” This statement is actually an indictment of America, seeing as how the same fight that brought Lewis and Ture together is still raging. Please do not allow white liberals to erase Lewis’ radical politics.
The movement for liberation has never ended and the fact that freedom has not been won proves that simply voting and joining the American political structure does little to bring freedom. The entire legacy of John Lewis has been co-opted, the Black freedom Lewis spoke of in 1963 was white-washed into the right to vote and hold political office, and the face of this was the first Black President Barack Obama.
Indeed Obama’s 2008 presidential victory signified a historic moment and gave millions of Black people, globally I will add, hope. Hope of a brighter tomorrow, hope in progress, hope of equality. This hope was placed into the “idea” of Obama, and led people to place him above reproach. While acknowledging the achievement of becoming the first Black president, we cannot afford to romanticize his tenure and forget his culpability in America’s global terror on BIPOC.
Obama supporters lament his lack of policy change to a republican controlled congress and cite his Affordable Care Act as his swing at institutional change, I want to directly challenge his actions as president compared to his words at John Lewis’ funeral. I believe that while undoubtedly one of the most eloquent speakers in United States history, ultimately he is a co-conspirator in white supremacy. I do not make this statement lightly or without research, I do not come to this conclusion through hate, I come to this point as a means of survival in the fight for the freedom John Lewis spoke of.
While watching Obama’s speech in full, and reading the manuscript on Medium, I was constantly reminded of the contradiction that is Barack Obama. In the words of @SankofaBrown “People miss being lied to in an eloquent manner.”
Obama walked us through the history of John Lewis, led us to Bloody Sunday, and then painted a very vivid picture of what that looked like. Obama stated, “And we know what happened to the marchers that day. Their bones were cracked by billy clubs, their eyes and lungs choked with tear gas. As they knelt to pray, which made their heads even easier targets, and John was struck in the skull. And he thought he was going to die, surrounded by the sight of young Americans gagging, and bleeding, and trampled, victims in their own country of state-sponsored violence.” Obama did a fantastic job of highlighting the evil of racism and even draws a spotlight to racism in 2020.
Obama stated, “Bull Connor may be gone. But today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans. George Wallace may be gone. But we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators.” This is the exact same scene young people in Ferguson, Baltimore and Standing Rock faced after then-President Obama sent the National Guard to occupy the land after the people stood up to fight for freedom, no different than Trump’s administration’s use of federal troops in 2020. Each president has weaponized the National Guard against Black liberation and Obama is no exception.
Obama does an excellent job idealizing America as a nation that is seeking to become a more perfect union. If that is truly the case then we cannot get mad that the people are indeed in the streets fighting for freedom; and those who meet those freedom fighters with state-sanctioned violence are indeed the perputraitors of white supremacist terror.
“Like John, we have got to fight even harder for the most powerful tool we have, which is the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act is one of the crowning achievements of our democracy. It’s why John crossed that bridge. It’s why he spilled his blood. And by the way, it was the result of Democratic and Republican efforts. President Bush, who spoke here earlier, and his father, both signed its renewal when they were in office. President Clinton didn’t have to because it was the law when he arrived so instead he made a law that made it easier for people to register to vote.”
John Lewis, much like so many others, fought for freedom and the price for speaking of freedom cost these young folks their blood, sweat, tears and often their lives. Revolutionary suicide. Voting is not freedom, it may be a component but voting in itself can never be conflated to freedom. Kwame Ture said, “I shed my blood for the vote, now…The vote for me has never been the road to liberation. It’s only the means of organizing my people…You vote once in four years and that’s your political responsibility? That’s the height of bourgeois propaganda,” and yet so many of us accept the idea that by following Obama we are destined for freedom.
Obama spent the rest of his speech in honor of John Lewis by advocating for new voting regulations, where was this fire and passion when he was in office? Where was this fight to give Americans their right to vote while he held the platform for change after running on the idea of hope? Obama’s whole career was opposed by white supremacy and he never even acknowledged it, and distanced himself from the fight for Black freedom as much as he could.
I have read all of Obama’s recent Medium posts in which he addresses the unrest in the country, but what is astounding to me is the fact he was once the commander-in-chief while majority of the actions he now denounces were taking place. I am not a conservative, nor a democrat, for I have studied long enough to know we are truly living in a one-party system and am jaded on any real change coming from established systems and institutions of America, because as we should know by now: white supremacy is American as apple pie.
As Obama closes, we see him begin to use words to build unity, we watch as he paints a picture of solidarity with Lewis’ legacy. The only problem with his statement is that what the former President describes is a world where the institutions and systems he upholds is torn apart and done away with. Obama paints an abolitionist’s America, “we see it outside our windows, in big cities and rural towns, in men and women, young and old, straight Americans and LGBTQ Americans, Blacks who long for equal treatment and whites who can no longer accept freedom for themselves while witnessing the subjugation of their fellow Americans. We see it in everybody doing the hard work of overcoming complacency, of overcoming our own fears and our own prejudices, our own hatreds. You see it in people trying to be better, truer versions of ourselves.”
This better, truer version is one rooted in liberation, in freedom, in the end of the oppressive white supremacist state of America as it currently stands. A world where the movement has succeeded and all people are able to live in their freedom because we have moved to a collective belief of compassion and love. Kwame Ture once said “The job of a revolutionary is, of course, to overthrow unjust systems and replace them with just systems because a revolutionary understands this can only be done by the masses of the people.” Again I pose the question: if the movement has yet to come to fruition does that not prove that maybe we should have followed Kwame a bit more?
As the funeral served as a celebration of the extraordinary life of John Lewis we should be celebrating the whole of his work and beliefs, not just those that appeal to the 2020 Presidential election. John Lewis respected the right to vote and fought for it but he was not blind to America’s propensity to utilize the military across the globe to “protect democracy,” yet was unwilling to protect the rights of those within the borders of the United States. “I don’t understand it, how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam and cannot send troops to Selma, Alabama, to protect people whose only desire is to register to vote.”
When we look back at his politics we see a man committed to liberation. John Lewis spoke directly against the violence of the police, “we are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jails over and over again. And then you holler, ‘Be patient.’ How long can we be patient?”
After gaining a reputation during his student activist days and early freedom rides, Lewis helped to lead SNCC as a leader in the fight for liberation. During his tenure as SNCC Chairman he led several campaigns around Black voting rights and helped to launch Freedom Schools. Even at the March on Washington, after several edits to tone down his radical voice, Lewis openly questioned the 1963 Civil Rights Bill, initially calling it “too little, too late.”
John Lewis fought both sides of the corrupt political system in congress going as far as posing the question “Where is the sense of decency? What does it profit a great nation to conquer the world, only to lose its soul?” When was that version of John Lewis represented during this celebration of life?
As we celebrate this giant of a man, a freedom fighter and radical thinker, we must actively work to ensure his Black Power politics are not erased. John Lewis asked for jobs, the end of police violence, a decrease in global military terror, and Black freedom. As we come to this conclusion we must then be acutely aware of why this celebration of life was sabotaged, high-jacked and co-opted. History has proven that by white-washing Black radicals we can pacify the masses, only this time we will not be silent and we will continue to make good trouble in the spirit of John Lewis, Kwame Ture, SNCC and all the others who have fought for freedom. In solidarity, for the revolution.