Book Reviews: ‘John Lewis,’ by Raymond Arsenault; ‘Medgar & Myrlie,’ by Joy-Ann Reid

JOHN LEWIS: In Search of the Beloved Community, by Raymond Arsenault

MEDGAR AND MYRLIE: Medgar Evers and the Love Story That Awakened America, by Joy-Ann Reid

In the spring of 1961, John Lewis and Medgar Evers found themselves at odds with the leadership of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The N.A.A.C.P. executive secretary, Roy Wilkins, wanted Black freedom won through institutional channels: voter registration and the courts. As 21-year-old Lewis and the other young Freedom Riders prepared to set off by Greyhound for Mississippi that May, Wilkins fretted: What would their new allies in the White House think? He dismissed the journey as a “joy ride.”

It was anything but. As a pair of new biographies show, Lewis and Evers helped to develop the direct-action protest tactics that reshaped the civil rights movement. In the deeply researched and accessible “John Lewis,” for example, the historian Raymond Arsenault describes how the Freedom Riders were arrested and jailed almost as soon as they reached Jackson. (They tried to use the whites-only restroom at the bus station.) Their incarceration garnered national attention, and, by the end of the summer, more than 400 activists were inspired to participate in more than 60 different rides. Two-thirds of them ended up in prison in Mississippi.

To be clear, Evers and Lewis weren’t exactly on the same page either. Evers, a World War II veteran, was the N.A.A.C.P.’s field secretary in Mississippi and more than a decade older than Lewis. As the MSNBC journalist Joy-Ann Reid details in her compelling history, “Medgar and Myrlie,” Evers traveled the state extensively and he was intimately familiar with the virulent racism and violence the riders would encounter.

Lewis was not. “I’d never been to Mississippi before,” he later explained. “All my life I had heard unbelievably horrible things about the place, stories of murders and lynchings, bodies dumped in rivers.”

While Evers respected their courage, he worried that outsiders would compete with the sit-ins and protests already taking place among — and being led by — Black youth in Jackson.

Still, as Reid shows, Evers supported young activists and believed in collaboration. He set the Freedom Riders up with an office a few doors down from his own.

Reid centers her engrossing history on the bond between Medgar Evers and his wife, now Myrlie Evers-Williams. The couple met in college and married on Christmas Eve in 1951. “He talked about how much he loved his country,” Evers-Williams recalls. “And he questioned how much his country loved and respected him.”

After Evers returned from France, a nation where Black G.I.s got better treatment than they did at home, Medgar saw with fresh eyes why justice in America could not be achieved through the election booth alone. Working with the N.A.A.C.P., he began investigating white supremacist murders, like that of Lamar “Ditney” Smith, a World War II veteran who was shot and killed by three white men on the steps of a courthouse where he was delivering absentee ballots from other Black voters.

Smith’s killing came just weeks before the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a case that haunted Evers for the remainder of his too short life. Reid writes that Medgar did the “painstaking work of convincing terrorized Blacks in the Delta” to appear as witnesses. His name started appearing on a Ku Klux Klan “kill list.” Many days at work, he wept at his desk.

Till’s murder also shook Lewis, who was just a year older than Till at the time. “That could have been me, beaten, tortured, dead at the bottom of a river,” he later wrote. He began to question the American principles of democracy and equality he had read about as a child. He felt like a “fool” for being excited by the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board decision outlawing school segregation.

In Mississippi, Evers worked to recruit disillusioned young people like Lewis. He traveled relentlessly, reviving field offices across the state and establishing youth councils among Black students. Evers’s story is less familiar than those of Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks, but Reid persuasively argues that Evers was the architect of a “civil rights underground network” that provided the foundations for other civil rights organizations in his state.

The risks of his activism weighed heavily on Myrlie. “When he left the house every day, I never knew whether I’d see him again,” she tells Reid. The terrible moment she had long feared came just after midnight on June 12, 1963, when a Klansman assassinated Medgar in the driveway of the couple’s Jackson home.

When news of Evers’s murder broke, “something died in all of us,” Lewis later said. That month, Lewis became the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and spent the summer crisscrossing the South leading nonviolence workshops.

The gulf between younger and older activists widened as the August date approached for the March on Washington, an event that Lewis and his SNCC colleagues “feared would be a pro-administration showcase” designed “to curry favor with the government,” Arsenault writes. “I didn’t want to be part of a parade,” Lewis later explained.

Lewis drafted a fiery speech, only for the elder civil rights leaders of the march — Wilkins, Whitney Young, M.L.K. — to pressure him to soften the tone. A. Phillip Randolph, who had first envisioned the march two decades earlier, was near tears when he pleaded with him: “I’ve waited all of my life for this opportunity. Please don’t ruin it.”

While some fellow activists criticized Lewis for scaling back the more radical language in his speech, the March on Washington in many ways epitomized what he hoped America might become. Lewis made his peace with the compromise and joined the broader coalition for social justice, his “Beloved Community.”

Over the next six decades, he organized with and against a wide range of political figures. In 1986, he squared off against his friend and fellow SNCC veteran, the charismatic and cerebral Julian Bond, in a tough primary campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives. In one debate, Lewis challenged Bond to take a drug test.

Lewis won and served 17 terms in Congress, where he wrangled with everyone from Newt Gingrich, the Republican speaker of the House, to President Bill Clinton, whose political pragmatism left Lewis cold.

And then there was President Donald Trump. “His earlier hope that the Republicans — and all Americans — would eventually come to embrace his belief in liberty and justice for all seemed naïve,” Arsenault writes. His aspirations got smaller. Civility seemed more achievable than civil rights.

But Lewis continued to support young agitators. Weakened by pancreatic cancer, he went to Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C., on June 7, 2020. (“You cannot stop the call of history,” Lewis said ahead of the visit.) He died 10 days later.

Arsenault’s book, a substantial entry in Yale’s Black Lives series, focuses primarily on the activist-turned-politician’s public life and is successful on this score. Still, I wanted to learn more about the people who knew Lewis the longest and what these relationships meant to him. “My family,” Lewis recalls in one tantalizing quote, “had never really been connected to or understood my involvement in the movement. To them, it was as if I was living in a foreign country.”

Reid conducted extensive interviews with Evers-Williams and offers a much more intimate account. After Medgar’s assassination, one of his young sons slept with a toy gun near his pillow. Myrlie considered taking her own life. Ultimately, she channeled her fear into public speaking and became a major fund-raiser for the N.A.A.C.P.

Myrlie never gave up on bringing Medgar’s killer to justice. The F.B.I. identified Byron De La Beckwith shortly after the murder, but he was not convicted until 1994. When the verdict was read, Myrlie broke into tears. Outside the courthouse, she locked arms with her children and looked toward the sky. “It’s been a long journey,” she said. “Medgar, I’ve gone the last mile.”

JOHN LEWIS: In Search of the Beloved Community | By Raymond Arsenault | Yale University Press | 552 pp. | $35

MEDGAR AND MYRLIE: Medgar Evers and the Love Story That Awakened America | By Joy-Ann Reid | Mariner | 342 pp. | $30

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