John Lewis and the Portland Connection

“The Bridge,” by Mike Luckovich (copyrighted)

“The Bridge,” by Mike Luckovich (copyrighted)

 On Sundays I brew my morning tea, read the print copy of the New York Times, listen to Lulu Garcia Navarro on NPR, and tune into my favorite podcasts, including This American Life and Freakonomics.

Today I searched for two nuggets of news: coverage of local protests in my home town of Portland, and comments about John Lewis, an advocate for systemic change in our democracy who passed away this week, and who spoke to graduating students at our university in 2004.

My former students and colleagues who heard his Commencement address wrote notes on Facebook and Twitter that acknowledge Lewis’s passion for peaceful and mindful change that bolsters the agency of the disempowered.

I remember Lewis’s speech, which underscored the theme that weaves throughout memories posted on social media and in the press: Lewis urged the Class of 2004 to hew to principles of inclusiveness and equality, using a peaceful, thoughtful and graceful countenance.

He also urged listeners to stay the course: don’t give up.

On NPR’s most current Weekend Edition, reporter Debbie Elliot said that, for Lewis, the methods activists used during the protests of the 1960s were linked to the outcome.

“Some of us came to the conclusion that means and ends are inseparable,” he said.

“If we are going to create the Beloved Community, an open society, if that is our goal, then the means and methods by which we struggle must be consistent with the goal; with the end we seek.”

The perspective is striking today, 16 years after his speech in our city—Portland—which has become a flashpoint for social change.

Hundreds of protestors—including students, alumni and fellow faculty from Portland State University—have demonstrated nightly for nearly two months.

Demonstrators I have spoken with reflect the stories I hear on NPR and read in the New York Times: most protestors follow Lewis’ posture of peace and respect.

Although some demonstrators caused damage and harm–setting fires and throwing bottles–they represent a minority.

In the NPR story, Lewis tells the reporter: “You never become bitter…You never become hostile. You never try to demean your opposition.”

Lewis was bashed over the head by a state trooper at a peaceful protest in Alabama on 7 March 1965.

Troopers clubbed activists as they crossed, unarmed, over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma: a scene recreated with authenticity in Ava DuVernay’s 2014 film, Selma.

(Historians note that the bridge is named in honor of a man who served in the highest ranks of the Ku Klux Klan in addition to representing Alabama in the US Senate in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Historians also note that Selma is the homeland of the Muscogee peoples before they were forcibly removed during Andrew Jackson’s bloody campaign called the Trail of Tears.)

“They came forward, beating us with night sticks, tramping us with horses, releasing the tear gas,” Lewis recounted. “I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a night stick. My legs went from under me. I thought I was going to die.”

Lewis recovered from a fractured skull, and spent the next five decades fighting peacefully for equality in the form of voter registration, housing, employment, and myriad civil rights.

Today in Portland, protestors have taken up the Civil Rights gauntlet raised by folks like Lewis, where some still suffer from attacks with the same weapons aimed at those who crossed the bridge in Selma: tear gas, night sticks, and more.

Donavan La Bella, a 26-year-old Portlander, was unarmed when he was shot in the head last week during a protest.

Today—a week later—La Bella is still hospitalized and recovering from surgery to his face and skull, according to Oregon Live.

Bystanders told reporters that La Bella was struck by a barrage of “impact munitions” discharged by federal law enforcement mercenaries, who were disguised in camouflage clothing with no noticeable identification.

Meantime, the Associated Press reports that the Governor of Oregon and the Mayor of Portland are demanding that Federal militia leave immediately.

The Oregon Attorney General and the American Civil Liberties Union have filed separate lawsuits against the Federal Government for its actions in Portland.

By sending Federally sanctioned militants to Portland, the lame duck US president follows a dictatorial path carved by the likes of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, each of whom used armed militants to crush dissenters.

Trump, like his fellow dictators, clamped down on journalists, forced the removal of emigrants, and executed a chokehold on agencies charged with overseeing justice for the disenfranchised while pardoning convicted felons who pledge him their allegiance.

Clearly the thugs in Washington DC fear the rebellion from warriors intent on taking back our democracy.

Imagine John Lewis asking whether the means justify the ends.

The thugs have chosen violence as their method.

They have chosen violence by ignoring a pandemic sweeping our nation–one that has left 145,000 dead–the equivalent of the population of a Waco (Texas), a Paterson (New Jersey) or a Savannah (Georgia).

They have chosen violence by stripping Native American communities of religious and cultural heritage in exchange for mining operations and crude oil pipelines.

And they have chosen violence by holding hostage 24,713 people in detention centers with the guise of enforcing immigration.

I think Lewis would agree with writer William Hazlitt’s observation that violence defeats its own ends.

Photo credit: Image called “The Bridge,” with John Lewis, by Pulitzer-Prize winner Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

19 July 2020

With acknowledgement and gratitude to the Native peoples on whose land I live, write and teach: the Multnomah, the Clackamas, and the denizens of all Indigenous nations


































About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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3 Responses to John Lewis and the Portland Connection

  1. Cynthia, This is such a fine, touching, to the point post. The thugs are doing what thugs do. The ultra right and left fringe join them in creating chaos and more danger. The rest of us do our beet to create the change that must come if there is to be a livable future for all people. Some days seem bleak indeed, leaving me to wonder how John Lewis and others kept the dream close.


  2. Michael: thank you for your kind reply. I would much prefer the protests take on a less violent nature–Lewis was right that violence leads to violence. Thanks for writing.


  3. Thanks for a great reead

    Liked by 1 person

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