• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.



Representative Lewis's challenge to us.

July 20, 2020

Many years ago, at my first community college job, I was hired by a vice president who had been there for about 16 years. He had attained a sort of legendary status on campus, for good and bad; there were people who considered him a star and people who considered him evil incarnate; as a newbie, I was in the awkward position of not knowing yet.

He left for a presidency elsewhere less than a year after I arrived. A few years later, while I was still there, I watched in disbelief as one of his most vituperative critics extolled his virtues, in implied contrast to his successor, who had inherited the title of evil incarnate. When it became convenient, the critic simply (and brazenly) rewrote history to use it as a cudgel. I don’t know if he lost track of when I started, or if he just didn’t give it a moment’s thought, but he seemed genuinely shocked when I responded, incredulously, “You hated him!”

I was reminded of that in reading tributes to the late Representative John Lewis.

American culture is very good at pretending that people who were controversial in their time were actually universally loved and respected after they’re gone. That’s especially true of leaders in the fight for equality. Martin Luther King Jr., to take the obvious example, was a polarizing figure in his time. Over time, he became a democratic socialist; although you wouldn’t know it from the way his birthday is celebrated, in his final years he led a “poor people’s campaign” for economic justice. I remember being struck, the first time I read “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” that he seemed more frustrated by “white moderates” than by avowed racists. With the latter, at least the battle lines were clear. With the former, all of the “yes, but …” answers, the “this is not the right time” or “that’s not the right way to protest” answers, the issues got cloudier. That made them harder to solve.

That “moderate” tendency is behind the move to sand down his rougher edges and turn him into an uncomplicated man with an uncomplicated cause. In high school in the '80s, I heard about segregated schools and lunch counters (although only in the South); I didn’t hear a whiff of his economics until college, and even then, only in the context of a course on protest movements. The story I learned in most of high school, and this is only a slight exaggeration, was “there was slavery, and that was bad, but the civil war solved it. Then there was racism, and that was bad, but Martin Luther King solved it. The end.”

Turning King into a Disney cartoon isn’t remembering the actual historical figure. It leaves out the work he considered undone. It also implies by contrast that anyone who generates controversy now must be somehow lesser or wrong, because otherwise they’d be universally beloved. They’re not, so they must be flawed in some unprecedented way.

John Lewis fought passionately for many things, chief among them the right to vote. He was a vocal and public supporter of the Voting Rights Act, because he knew what would happen to the vote if local officials in many areas were left unchecked. When the Supreme Court decided that racism is so five minutes ago and repealed part of the Voting Rights Act, it took less than a week for the first state to start pulling shenanigans. Now, voter suppression is openly discussed as if it’s normal. In a perverse way, it is. And some of the very same people who are issuing statements honoring Representative Lewis -- whether using the correct photo or not -- are also blocking the bill to reinstate the Voting Rights Act. They’re trying to turn Lewis, too, into a Disney figure, while forgetting the actual causes for which he worked.

One of the consolations of getting older is seeing patterns more quickly. With more data points to draw upon, it’s easier to recognize things for what they are.

If we want to remember John Lewis, we should do it by doubling down on the work that made him memorable. That means taking hard looks at our institutions to see where they rely on, presume or perpetuate injustice, and then changing them so they don’t. Yes, rename the Pettus bridge; that’s entirely appropriate. But that’s the easy part. The hard part is moving past the temptation to create an imaginary apolitical figure who was universally beloved and actually engaging with the difficult work of change, like he did. He was a political figure, championing controversial causes, in the name of making the country fairer. That work isn’t finished. Some of the people singing his praises are actively opposing that work. They’re pulling the “moderate” move that King called out decades ago.

Controversy doesn’t mean you’re wrong. Real change almost always brings controversy. Pretending otherwise is a way to try to stop the next real change.

The country is on the brink of a fundamental decision about what it is, and what it wants to be. We can honor Representative Lewis by continuing his work in ways that would make him proud.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


We are retiring comments and introducing Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

Back to Top