By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
John Lewis was beaten so badly with nightsticks during the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March that the scars are still visible on his head today.
However, Lewis suffered other injuries because he marched lockstep with the Rev. Dr. Martin L. King during the Civil Rights era. Lewis was only 21 when two men punched him in his face and ribs in a whites-only waiting room in Rock Hill, S.C. In some photos, Lewis wears bandages. In other photos, blood drips down his face. Or he dangles like a sack of potatoes between two officers who haul him away from another segregated facility in numerous photos that were taken during his student-activist years in Nashville from 1957 to 1963, when he was a student at Nashville’s American Baptist Theological Seminary and later at Fisk. Oh yes, in 1961, in Montgomery someone in a white mob at a bus station hit him with a wooden Coca-Cola crate.
As footsteps fade in the sand, the names of those who wielded a nightstick, balled a fist to throw a punch, hurled a racial insult, and slung a coke crate vanished. Yet history kindly remembers Lewis.
“If somebody told me one day I would be standing in the White House, and an African-American president presenting me the Medal of Freedom, I would have said, ‘Are you crazy? Are you out of your mind?’” Lewis said at a White House ceremony in February 2011, when he was one of 15 people to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
This is the point. Deep in his mind, Lewis continues to walk lockstep with Dr. King. How else would you explain the 45 arrests he has racked up?
According to a 2013 press release, Lewis was arrested 40 times during the Civil Rights movement. He has been arrested five times as a Congressman, most recently for protesting against comprehensive immigration reform in 2013. One of several Congresspersons who participated in an immigration sit-in that year, Lewis and 100 others were arrested on charges of “crowding, obstructing, and incommoding” after a large group blocked First Street near the Capitol, according a CBS news report. “Lewis was arrested twice at the South African embassy protesting apartheid and twice at the Sudanese embassy protesting genocide in Darfur.”
At the 2011 White House ceremony, dropping his neck so that President Barack Obama could drape and arrange the Medal of Freedom around his shoulders, Lewis said, “I didn’t give up, I didn’t give in, I kept the faith. I kept my eyes on the prize. It’s worth every step, every sit-in, every beating, every arrest.”
In a sense, Lewis reminds you of the Energizer Bunny – you know the pink rabbit in the sunglasses that keeps beating the drum and keeps going and going. Although Lewis spent 37 days in 1961 in Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi for using a white restroom, he is expected to celebrate his 79th birthday on Feb. 21. Elected to Georgia’s 5th Congressional District in 1987, he has often been reelected with over 70 percent of the vote.
Lewis is approaching his 80th birthday with faded scars, ancient bruises, and clear accomplishments that date back to the Civil Rights era. His legacy deserves more than a fleeting high-five or casual acknowledgement because it is clear that racism harmed Lewis. However, numerous studies underscore racism’s toxicity. It is harmful and has a spillover effect.
This means there is a clear relationship between racial discrimination, stress, anxiety, mental disorders, health disparities, and alcohol and drug abuse. Discrimination spills over to the point that long- term discrimination can even lead to changes in the way the brain processes information, disrupting, for example, the regions involved in planning and decision-making.
“We now have decades of research showing that when people are chronically treated differently, unfairly or badly, it can have effects ranging from low self-esteem to a higher risk for developing stress-related disorders such as anxiety and depression,” said Vickie Mays, a UCLA public health professor, who delivered the keynote address at the American Psychological Association’s annual meeting in 2015.
Mays said even as research continues to show the complex impact that discrimination has on mental health, more action should be taken to apply what is already known. Mays is also the director of the BRITE (Bridge Research, Education, Innovation, Training and Education) Center on Minority Health Disparities Solutions.
Here is another spillover effect. Someone discriminates against you and you stress out everybody around you. Or you may experience elevated blood pressure. Even if you have a passive posture or deny discriminatory treatment (experts call it “John Henryism,” a coping technique that aims to silently bear-up under unfair racial treatment), it also caused elevated blood pressure readings in some studies. Racism harms, spills over, and harms again.
According to a 2003 study by the American Public Health Association, “Racism increases the volume of stress one experiences and may contribute directly to the physiological arousal that is a marker of stress-related diseases.”
The point is studies are helpful but Lewis continues to confront the raw, angry, festering, and irrational type of discrimination that many people of color encounter on a routine basis. For example, before Super Bowl 53 was held in Atlanta, Lewis discussed the NFL athletes who kneel to peacefully protest against police brutality and social injustice.
“There’s nothing wrong with kneeling,” Lewis said, in recent news reports. “Before we marched from Selma to Montgomery, on March 7, 1965, we knelt. We prayed. Andy Young was the only person standing out of the 600 of us. We knelt, and when we said, ‘Amen,’ we stood and we started walking.”
Lewis is still going and going, in other words. Still, he was hospitalized for two days in July 2018, after he started feeling dizzy and sweaty on a flight from Detroit to Atlanta, according to WSB-TV Atlanta. “The septuagenarian hasn’t been slowing down lately. Just last month he joined thousands of people marching in Atlanta as part of the nationwide March for Our Lives against gun violence.”
This means Lewis’ Energizer Bunny-type strategy speaks volumes about the therapeutic benefits of talking less and doing more. Just start anywhere, experts say. Whether he was participating in a sit-in or a march during the Civil Rights era, or helping to create the National Museum of African-American History, Lewis just started anywhere. For example, he introduced legislation for the museum in 1988, the year he was sworn into office. He introduced legislation in Congress in June 1993 but it fizzled in the Senate.
“So he introduced it again the next year, then two years after that. With each new Congress, for 15 years, Lewis proposed his bill,” according to The Washington Post. The National Museum of African-American History and Culture opened to the public on September 24, 2016.
Lewis told The Washington Post, “It’s very simple. If you believe in something and you want to see it through, you have to be persistent and consistent. You never ever give up. You just keep believing … When the doors open to the museum, and we go in, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I may shout, I may just cry,” Lewis said. “I think it will have a healing and cleansing effect on the very psyche of our country. And with what is going on right now, we need it more than ever.”