Congressman John Lewis is one of the most prominent youth leaders of the modern civil rights movement. Former Chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordination Committee (SNCC), John Lewis was a youth leader that was among the inner circle of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the undisputed leader of the civil rights movement. Rev. King was head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference SCLC, and SNCC was a mascot youth component of the senior civil rights organization.
SNCC was the quintessential integrated student and youth organization of the tumultuous 1960’s and they were initially vociferous adherents to non-violent direct action social/political tactics, as the proven strategy to deploy against the brutality of racial discrimination, violence and bigotry. A consequential split occurred with the youth contingent of the civil rights movement when they denounced non-violence as a tactic, against the state and wanton racial violence and bigotry.
Rev. King, SCLC and all other civil rights organizations promoted and adhered to the non-violent social and political motif inspired by Gandhi. On the other hand the black and African consciousness movement was emerging on campuses and in local communities comprised of black and white students and community activists. The war in Viet Nam became an issue alongside of racial discrimination, etc., that comprised the agenda of the youthful contingent. African liberation movements, and the full range of subversive politics became associated with the student and community activist movement and the concept of ‘black power’ was born. Concomitantly, the idea of armed struggle became a part of the conversation in domestic and African liberation of community based black political activism.
On the ground particularly in urban centers and inner cities of America Rev. King and the civil rights movement had a counterpart social/political leader in the name of Malcolm X. As a practical political matter the youthful component and the adherents of ‘black power’ where inspired by Malcolm X. Both Martin and Malcolm were beloved leaders in the black community and the relevant communities understood that Martin was a prominent civil rights leader and they also understood that Malcolm was a prominent human rights leader. There was no confusion or ambiguity of the different political lanes that these two contemporary black leaders traveled.
On the contrary, the two leaders are too often conflated by promoters of the popular social and political historical narrative. Be that as it may, there was an important division between the leaders that was expressed by the northern and southern dichotomy of the student and community youth movement. The northern element of the youth movement enjoyed an affinity to Malcolm X, while the southern element was partial to Rev. King. This distinction was memorialized by Malcolm in a quote referencing the tactical approach of King… Malcolm said: “they need to stop sing, and start swinging…”
Perhaps the most consequential issue that determined the nature of the civil rights and black power movements going forward was the war in Viet Nam. Moreover, the political metamorphosis of Rev. King to a vociferous public advocate against the war had a catalytic impact on local as well as national politics. Subsequently, Rev. King transitioned in the perception of the powers that be from a ‘responsible’ Negro civil rights leader to a public political and social piranha. Virtually overnight Rev. was shunned by most of his peers in the civil rights movement.
Black elected and unelected leaders and the entire civil rights leadership orthodoxy publicly denounced and distinguished themselves politically from Kings anti-war conversion. By the time of Rev. King’s assassination only his organizing and advance staff remained in his direct orbit. The leadership of SCLC and the civil rights leadership orthodoxy including the NAACP, Urban League, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and others who included themselves among the ‘responsible’ Negro leadership orthodoxy.
John Lewis remained a close confidant to Dr. King throughout the dog-days of the movement, and John is among the legitimate social and political heirs to the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Moreover, Congressman Lewis’ ascendancy to the status of civil rights icon is earned as well as befitting. The congressman is directly cut out of the Rev. King social/political leadership activist archetype, similar to his predecessor as SNCC Chairman, the former Mayor of Washington D.C. Marian Berry. Both the congressman and the mayor came directly out of the civil rights movement’s southern wing and the Rev. King social/political paradigm.
But the subsequent Chairmen of SNCC, Stokely Carmichael and Rap Brown respectively exemplified the northern wing of the student and community youth movement with adoration to the political and social philosophy of Malcolm X. At the point that Carmichael was Chairman of SNCC was the intersection wherein Carmichael helped to influence Rev. King to come out publicly against the war, and Rev. King ultimately did just that. Subsequently, Carmichael became politically fascinated with the liberation political movement sweeping through the continent of African, and the use of armed struggle as a viable strategy became vogue. Carmichael founded the All African People’s Revolutionary Party. Rap Brown succeeded Carmichael and SNCC and Brown remained in armed struggle revolutionary politics.
In summary the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), gave birth to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and SNCC gave birth to ‘black power’ while denouncing non-violence social disobedience as a viable tactic against racial brutality and wanton violence. During this tumultuous generation two (2) black leaders emerged in the names of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X that influenced the generations to social and political action. In the wake of the most consequential generations of the 20th century, the storied civil rights movement may standout as the most far-reaching and pivotal of the century.