Before coming to America, I was aware of, or at least had pictorial acquaintance of, a few figures of our times. One was Cornel West, the second was Henry Louis Gates Jr., the third was John Lewis – and of course Barack Obama. I had known about these people either through their books, talks or their Wikipedia profiles. I do not know why I would have known them, but it must have been been due to a friend who might have shared their profiles with me.
It was about five years ago when I seriously started to take academic interest in the lives of these people and more importantly the history they represented – the African American world copiously designated to the sub-American ranking. I was interested in the lives of black people of America as I was interested in the life of black people in South Africa. Both groups took me to their respective countries.
John Lewis, unlike other people in the list, was a politician and an organiser. He was a veteran and the senior-most Congressman in the House of Representatives. John Lewis represented Georgia’s Fifth congressional district from 1987 till his death on July 17.
Lewis represented an era that shook the branches of American racism gripped with white supremacy. Born on February 21, 1940, to sharecropper parents in the segregated southern US state of Alabama, Lewis had seen the inequity throughout his life. Unable to tolerate the injustices of racism and white-black separation, Lewis joined the Civil Rights Movement heralded by Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Lewis credited King for inspiring him to join the movement.
Eventually, Lewis would become one of the top leaders of civil rights activism and one of the youngest. Lewis was merely 23 years old when he added his firebrand voice to the star list of influential speakers at the civil rights march in Washington where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963.
Lewis also led the influential Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that organised a march through Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, demanding voting rights for Blacks. State troopers reacted with violence in an incident that became known as Bloody Sunday. Lewis sustained a crack on his skull, an injury that was to remain with him till the end.
Lewis was a sensible democrat who participated in non-violent protests, getting arrested for more than 40 times. Lewis’ political career began with getting elected to the Atlanta city council after which he went to the House of Representatives in 1987. Lewis continued his political work fighting against racism, injustice and poverty.
Recognising his legendary work, he was awarded America’s highest civil award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom by country’s first Black president Barack Obama. It was the efforts of people like Lewis that paved a path for Obama to become the president of the US. Unlike many front-rank leaders of the Civil Rights movement, Lewis was alive to witness history. Lewis remained active in his public life till he breathed his last after battling with cancer for six months.
I was fortunate enough to to have spent time with the statesman twice. The first was during his visit to Harvard University where he had come to deliver the graduation address for the class of 2018. The second time was at the US Congress when I went to see him in Washington D.C.
Both times, the person who mediated this connection was my friend and classmate at the Harvard Kennedy School, Brenda Jones. Jones is an African American journalist and communications expert who worked for John Lewis as his communications director for 16 years.
Brenda Jones and I had bonded over issues of racial injustices at the Kennedy School. We talked about caste, Ambedkar and Gandhi. Jones immediately related the problems of Dalits with those of African Americans. Conscious that she was a high-profile civil servant serving under one of the most powerful Congressman, she was careful to not say some things out aloud and thus would whisper.
During our first dinner meet, Jones said that I need to meet her boss and apprise him of the Dalit situation. When John Lewis was confirmed to come to Harvard, she got me and two other African American students an exclusive hour with him. As protocol, I was made aware of the basics of communicating and talking with Lewis – how to address him or deliberate on matters of interest.
Accordingly, on May 23, 2018, I made a presentation entitled “The Caste System” explaining the operation of caste. I was given 15 mins to present but Lewis got so engrossed in the discussion that our conversation lasted 40 minutes, with the two other students participating too. He had many questions and wanted my opinion about politicians of Indian origin in the Republican party. After taking stock of India’s caste discriminations and atrocities he made a comment that perhaps it was the caste system that influenced this shift to the Republican values among Indians.
During the presentation, John Lewis was patient and attentive. His eyes staring right at me and eyebrows strained – his signature style. He was attentive and that gave me more confidence to be frank and bold. The PowerPoint presentation had slides ranging from describing what is the caste system to the current status of Dalits in India. After I finished the presentation Lewis offered his comments. He said he was in “full solidarity with our Dalit brothers and sisters in India”. He said he was aware of the caste problem but not to the level of their experiences that I had presented. He said he had visited India as part of a government delegation in 2009 and had visited the Gandhi memorial and few sites in India that related to the visit of King and his spouse Coretta.
I extended an invite to him to visit this time, “Dalit India”. He was intrigued and immediately replied, “Yes. I would love to.” Waving to his chief of staff he told him to make a note of it and follow up on this one. Another issue that we discussed was related to the solidarity of African Americans and Dalits. I urged him to look into the matter of creating some scholarships or research programmes to facilitate the exchange of Dalit and Black students and scholars. He nodded with an amazed affirmative. As we were conversing in deep thoughts his staff was furiously taking notes. Lewis also directed his staff to put a request to the Congress committee on Foreign Affairs to make a plan for the India trip. He said he would call upon me whenever the plan comes to fruition. Till then, he asked to keep in touch with his office and Brenda Jones.
Then about a year later on April 1, 2019, I went to deliver a keynote address at an academic conference at American University in Washington D.C.. I planned this trip to set up a meeting with John Lewis. I took Laxmi Berwa, a veteran Ambedkarite activist who was active in protesting against Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Morarji Desai in front of the White House.
Berwa in his mid-70s was all jolly and jumpy when he saw John Lewis in flesh. He wanted to touch him and hug him. They both talked and then I and John Lewis spent some time revisiting the conversations on the Dalit-Black issues. He pointed to Brenda Jones to follow up with the work as he had already expressed his interest in it.
She said that the procedures committee of the Congress would work on the plans. After the meeting, she took us through the chambers of the US House of Representatives to look at the portraits of former presidents. There was also one of Rosa Parks installed during the tenure of Obama. Our tour was facilitated by a tour guide. As we were staring at the high ceilings of the famous dome in the Congress building, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez brushed past us as she made her way to the other side of the House with files in her hands.
Gandhi Legacy Bill
A few months ago, I came to know that a Gandhi Legacy Bill had been proposed by Lewis’ office to promote scholarly interest and shared values. This reminded my conversation with Lewis when I alerted to him that rarely Dalit candidates benefit from such India-US exchange initiatives. He reacted by asserting that a special section on Dalits will be included.
Spending time with a legend of a man and hugging his spirits was like getting a wind of history before our eyes. From black and white world of divisions of the pre-1960s America to a colourful 2018. John Lewis was that one man who offered his leadership from the tender age till he matured. John Lewis lived a life that very few of his generation could. He saw the changing moods and nature of his country. He also saw a Black president and more importantly witnessed some of the good, bad and the ugly truths that haunt American society.
John Lewis was a friend of the Dalit cause and he wanted to make sure that the Dalit issue gets discussed and recognised in the US Congress. His immediate affirmative reaction to the proposal of Dalit-Black unity and agreeing to visit India one more time to witness the Dalit world is indicative of African American love for the Dalit people. As a representative of Dalit world, I was happy to add another historical moment in the growing archive of Dalit-Black solidarity.
Scholar and activist Suraj Yengde is the author of Caste Matters and co-editor of The Radical in Ambedkar.