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What “is missed often about what these movements have in common is we may not be of a religious tradition, but we absolutely are of a spiritual tradition,” Khan said, citing the examples of Lewis and Ella Baker, another civil rights forbear with ties to the church. “There is something inherently supernatural and spiritual about the work of social justice and the work of change.”
The goals of the Black Lives Matter movement also intersect with the objectives of many liberation-focused Black churches: self-sufficient, politically empowered Black communities, equal access to resources and deep regard for public safety.
Al Sharpton, Baptist minister and founder of the National Action Network, said that to suggest that the movement’s conflict with the church is a new phenomenon would be “rewriting of the movement.”
“This is nothing new,” Sharpton said. “Martin Luther King used to call it ‘creative tension.’ We need the push and pull between different disciplines and different tactics to come up with the best way.”
Sharpton pointed out that of the Big Six civil rights leaders of the 1960s who coordinated the first March on Washington — James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, A. Phillip Randolph, Whitney Young, King and Lewis — only one, King, was a preacher. Many, as in the case of Roy Wilkins, were often hostile to the church as an organizing tool and felt it got in the way of the movement’s goals. It’s a pattern that repeats itself in the Black Lives Matter era, Sharpton argued.
“It’s not like you don’t have church leaders that don’t disagree with me,” he said. “And it’s not like you don’t have Black Lives Matter folks that say ‘he ain’t with us even though he’s black, and he says he is.’ There’s searching on all sides. Can we make it all work is the challenge.”
Two of Black Lives Matter’s founders, Patrisse Cullors and Alicia Garza, have spoken at National Action Network events and gone on Sharpton’s show “to show operational unity.” Younger activists have deferred to Sharpton in their organizing, as was the case in Minneapolis during George Floyd’s funeral, where it was accepted that Sharpton would deliver Floyd’s eulogy.
Activists of all generations, genders and sexual and religious orientations are united, moreover, in their view of how Lewis’ civil rights record has informed the work they have done and continue to do. His legacy proves especially critical now, following the more than two months of protests against racism and police violence that have made Lewis’ quintessential phrase “good trouble” newly relevant.
Speaking at Lewis’ funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church, former President Barack Obama, weighed in from the pulpit on the biggest political issues of the day: Voting rights, fair Congressional representation and the presence of federal agents in America’s cities.
“We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar in order to cast a ballot, but even as we sit here, there are those in power who are doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting by closing polling locations and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision,” Obama, the nation’s first Black president, said.
Yet Lewis’ work, Obama continued, “vindicated the faith in our founding.”
Several organizers said Lewis’ legacy has helped them push the boundaries of what could be possible in their work.
Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, evoked Lewis’ words from his speech at the first March on Washington in her address to the Democratic National Committee’s platform meeting on Monday.
“Hearkening back to Lewis, ‘we are now involved in a serious revolution,’” Cullors said, borrowing language from his March on Washington address. Cullors encouraged the Democrats to embrace “sea changes” recommended by the Black Lives Matter movement, namely the BREATHE Act, which would limit federal ability to deploy police forces to cities and dramatically decrease the defense budget.
“It’s not enough just to have a seat at the table, we want to create a table or we want to flip the table over,” said Angela Peoples, an organizer and director of Black Womxn For, an organization that aims to galvanize the political power of Black women and gender non-conforming folks. “But even being able to name that as something that we want or that we even think is possible is only because those that have come before us have pushed their existence and their reality to see beyond what’s possible.”
This was true even in the face of bodily danger, something that has been associated with Lewis’ legacy as a protester. Jesse Jackson, former presidential candidate and founder of the multiethnic organizing Rainbow Coalition said that Lewis “became immortal” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday in 1965. During that day, Lewis’ skull was cracked by a state trooper with a billy club.
“John never stopped fighting,” Jackson said. “He had no fear and was always a really gentle and tough-minded person.”
He also had his eyes on the future, even in his final days: one of the last pieces of legislation Lewis supported was the Justice in Policing Act, which aims to limit police violence. The bill, which would establish a national standard for police tactics and limit officers’ use of force, passed in the House on June 25, exactly one month after Floyd was killed.
Kayla Reed, director of the organizing group Action St. Louis and co-creator of the Movement for Black Lives’ Electoral Justice Project, said Lewis’ legacy inspired her career of activism.
“I think it highlights what is possible,” Reed said. “When we think about how some people put a beginning and end to movements, that movement [work] is actually a lifelong commitment.”