THE ROOT, Stephen A. Crockett, Jr./7.18.2020
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights leader who served in Congress since 1987, has died after a months-long battle with pancreatic cancer, Friday. He was 80.
Lewis was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer on December 2019 and underwent treatment while remaining in office. Lewis would become one of President Trump’s fiercest opponents—right up until his death—in a political and civil rights career that began some 50 years ago.
Lewis’ life reads like a fictional movie character created to span the entire civil rights movement through one person. He was born on February 21, 1940, to Willie Mae (née Carter) and Eddie Lewis, both of whom were sharecroppers. Lewis was one of nine children, raised in Troy, Ala. He would attend Pike County Training High School, in Alabama, and later, American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University, both in Nashville, Tenn. Lewis would become a fixture on the Nashville civil rights scene where he frequently led sit-ins—one of which led to the desegregation of Nashville lunch counters—and began attending nonviolence workshops that would lead him to a nonviolent civil rights philosophy that he still believed in right up until his death.
Lewis knew early on that he wanted to be a freedom fighter after feeling the impact that Jim Crow laws had on him as a child.
“I saw racial discrimination as a young child,” Lewis said in a 2005 interview with NPR. “I saw those signs that said ‘White Men, Colored Men, White Women, Colored Women’. … I remember as a young child with some of my brothers and sisters and first cousins going down to the public library trying to get library cards, trying to check some books out, and we were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only and not for ‘coloreds’.”
Lewis credits a childhood trip to the North, to Buffalo, N.Y., as the first time he saw white men and black men working together. He would also be fascinated by water fountains without signs designating them for whites only. Lewis would listen to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks on the radio and would meet them both while only a teenager.r
In 1960, Lewis would become one of the original 13 Freedom Riders, who would ride buses to challenge segregated seating in the South. In 1963—at only 23—he would become one of the youngest members of the “Big Six” leaders as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the youngest speaker at the March on Washington. During his three years with SNCC, Lewis would help SNCC launch the Mississippi Freedom Summer, a push to organize and register black voters in Mississippi. Lewis was also integral in opening the Freedom Schools, alternatives to public schools mostly in the South, that were completely free and aimed to help teach African American children learn to think and act politically.
On March 7, 1965—a day that would become known as “Bloody Sunday”—Lewis, several religious leaders, activists, and some 600 marchers attempted to cross Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to protest the police shooting death of unarmed protester Jimmie Lee Jackson a few weeks earlier. The plan was for marchers to walk to then-Gov. George Wallace’s office to ask questions about Jackson’s death. Gov. Wallace said that there would be no march and ordered the Alabama Highway Patrol chief to “use whatever measures are necessary to prevent a march.”
Lewis, stood beside Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) as he led march across the bridge. At the end of the bridge, marchers were confronted by Alabama State Troopers, who ordered them to leave. Instead they began to pray. Police then launched tear gas, while mounted troops began beating nonviolent protesters with nightsticks. Lewis’ skull was fractured in the melee and the scars from that day were still visible as he got older. The visions of police beating protesters, which were broadcasted across America, would prompt President Lyndon B. Johnson into signing the Voting Rights Act into law on Aug. 6, 1965.
Lewis would turn his attention to change on a governmental level in 1977 when he would run an unsuccessful campaign to win Atlanta’s 5th congressional district seat. In 1981, Lewis was elected to the Atlanta City Council and in 1986, Lewis ran again for the 5th Congressional District seat in a tough campaign to beat favorite Julian Bond for the Democratic nomination. He would go on to beat Republican Portia Scott in the general election. Lewis has been a congressional juggernaut since, winning the seat every election since.
.Lewis was the only living speaker from the March on Washington on stage during Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 and later Obama would sign a photo of himself to Lewis with the words. “Because of you, John. Barack Obama.”
Lewis would go on to win several honorary doctorates and awards for his civil rights work, most notably the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 from President Obama and the 2016 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for the third installment of March, a graphic novel depicting his life during the civil rights movement alongside co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell. The first two volumes of March were published in 2013 and 2015, respectively.
The New York Times would call the series “A galvanizing account of his coming-of-age in the movement, it’s a capsule lesson in courage of conscience, a story that inspires without moralizing or simplifying in hindsight.”
From the Times:
March begins and draws to a close with scenes from the march Lewis led in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965, forever known as “Bloody Sunday” after state troopers and the local police attacked the nonviolent protesters. The opening panels depict the marchers gathered at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, then move from their tense, prayerful faces to the phalanx of billy clubs and white helmets on the opposite bank. Lewis, then only 25, was beaten that day; five months later, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.
In what has now become a bandwagon, Lewis was one of the few Congress members to announce, even before President Donald Trump took office, that he had no intentions or working with an openly racist elected official.
“I don’t see this president-elect as a legitimate president,” Lewis said in an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press a week before Trump was sworn into office. “I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected and they have destroyed the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.”
Lewis was fiercely loyal to the fight for equal rights and made no bones about his loyalty. As such, he didn’t attend Trump’s inauguration, the first one he’s missed since being elected to Congress.
“You cannot be at home with something that you feel is wrong,” Lewis said.
During impeachment proceedings against Trump in 2019, Lewis gave an impassioned speech on the House floor.
“When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, do something,” Lewis said Wednesday. “Our children and their children will ask us: ‘What did you do? What did you say?’”
Lewis, a fighter since birth, noted that he was in a fight for his life after learning of his cancer diagnosis in December 2019 during a routine medical visit.
“I’ve been in some kind of fight—for freedom, equality, basic human rights – for nearly my entire life,” he told AJC in December. “I have never faced a fight quite like this one.”
In a December statement, Lewis was hopeful about advances in cancer research and his chances to win his health battle.
“I have decided to do what I know to do and do what I have always done: I am going to fight it and keep fighting for the Beloved Community,” he said. “We still have many bridges to cross.
The bean pie is sweet, custard-like, and a foundationally humble foodstuff.
It’s also a culinary icon of the controversial Nation of Islam and of revolutionary black power
The bean pie’s basic ingredients are simple: navy beans, sugar, eggs, milk, some warming spices, and a whole-wheat crust.
The execution is also straightforward, no different than any other custard-style pie, be it sweet potato or chess.
But the deceptively simple pie is one of the most enduring symbols of revolutionary black power that dates back from the civil rights movement. It has been sold on street corners and in high-end restaurants. It has been referenced in television shows
and rap music, and Will Smith feasted on it with friends on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Boxer Muhammad Ali even blamed one of his most famous losses on it.
The bean pie came to prominence through the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist and social reform movement founded in 1930. Based on beliefs that included black supremacy and self-reliance, the Nation represented a profound shift from the collaborative social-reform strategies of groups like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Led by controversial figures like Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, the Nation preached a separatist movement that rejected all enforced doctrines of white society, from clothing to surnames to religion.
Instead, it advocated for a new black identity free from the legacies of enslavement. Christianity, for example, was abandoned in favor of Islam, and surnames given by slave owners were replaced by an X.
A follower’s diet, methodical and inflexible, was one of the pillars that supported this new identity. The Nation’s leaders argued that many dishes and ingredients traditional to black foodways, particularly soul food, were relics of the “slave diet” and had no part in the lives of contemporary African-Americans.
They also drew a line from soul food—specifically its elevated salt, fat, and sugar content—to the medical woes that disproportionately affected the black community, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, hypertension, and obesity. Soul food, the Nation’s leaders believed, was just another means through which whites attempted to control and destroy the black population. As Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation from 1934 to 1975, wrote in his two-book series How to Eat to Live, “You know as well as I that the white race is commercializing people and they do not worry about the lives they jeopardize so long as the dollar is safe. You might find yourself eating death if you follow them.” As a result, the Nation of Islam created its own radical—and somewhat idiosyncratic—new diet for his followers to adhere to, one influenced by both health and identity.
In How to Eat to Live, which was published in 1967, Muhammad emphasized vegetarianism, consuming whole grains and vegetables, and limiting sugar, processed grains, and traditional soul food ingredients, like sweet potatoes, corn, collard greens, and pork—the latter of which was vehemently forbidden to Nation members in accordance with Muslim law. Alcohol and tobacco were also prohibited. In their stead, black chefs cooked with ingredients like brown rice, smoked turkey, tahini, and tofu—which, as black culinary historian Jessica B. Harris writes in High on the Hog, “appeared on urban African American tables as signs of gastronomic protest against the traditional diet.”
The navy bean emerged as one of the Nation’s most important new ingredients; according to Muhammad, all other beans were divinely prohibited. “Do not eat any bean but the small navy bean—the little brown pink ones, and the white ones,” he wrote in How to Eat to Live. “Allah (God) says that the little navy bean will make you live, just eat them…. He said that a diet of navy beans would give us a life span of one hundred and forty years. Yet we cannot live [half] that length of time eating everything that the Christian table has set for us.
The navy bean was used in a number of new Muslim recipes published in cookbooks and pamphlets, including soups, salads, and even cake frosting. But it was via the bean pie that it truly rose to prominence. The pie’s origins are unclear. Lance Shabazz, an archivist and historian of the Nation of Islam, told the Chicago Reader that the pie allegedly came from the Nation’s original founder, Wallace D. Fard Muhammad, who supposedly bestowed the recipe upon Elijah Muhammad and his wife, Clara, in the 1930s. This claim, however, has never been fully substantiated.
Although Muhammad never explicitly mentioned the bean pie in How to Eat to Live, it quickly rose to prominence in the black Muslim community. With a rich, custard-like filling from starchy mashed navy beans, the pie was generously spiced and pleasantly sweet—a true dessert, despite being full of beans. The beans’ nuttiness, combined with the warming kick of nutmeg and cinnamon, proved an irresistible dish, and soon, as Harris writes in High on the Hog, it could be found “hawked by the dark-suited, bow-tie-wearing followers of the religion along with copies of the Nation’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks.” Muslim bakeries in cities from New York to Chicago offered it to customers, and “that’s where you would go to buy it, like going to get bread,” says black food historian Therese Nelson. It soon become a staple on the menus of restaurants owned by Nation members.
Lana Shabazz, Muhammad Ali’s personal chef, was renowned for her bean pie, and she included a recipe for it in her cookbook, Cooking for the Champ. As Shabazz wrote, the boxer so loved the pie that he even blamed it for his loss to Joe Frazier in the 1971 heavyweight title fight, having been unable to resist slices during his training.
Eventually, the bean pie became one of the defining hallmarks of the black Muslim diet—a “juggernaut,” to use Nelson’s term, that was a mainstay on dinner tables and in bakeries, and a fund-raising tool to support the initiatives of the Nation in communities across the United States.
The bean pie has since become a fixture in African-American culture, referenced in rap, comedy, television, and movies, from Queen Latifah’s song “Just Another Day” to In Living Color. It continues to be served after mosque services and sold on street corners both whole and in smaller, snack-size portions, typically with a copy of The Final Call, the Nation of Islam’s newspaper. And of course, the bean pie is on the menu at landmark Muslim bakeries, such as Your Black Muslim Bakery in Oakland and Abu’s Bakery in Brooklyn.
Idris Braithwaite, who runs Abu’s Bakery, says that the bean pie is, in fact, more American than apple pie. Apple pie, he points out, has origins in England, whereas bean pie originated in America. And as Braithwaite tells me, it exists “along the lines of being creative, being innovative, taking sort of what you’ve been presented with and making something unique and awesome.”
It’s a lot of potent symbolism to ascribe to a humble pie, Braithwaite is quick to admit. And despite its powerful legacy, he says, the bean pie “happens to be a great dessert. It tastes wonderful, it looks nice, it smells wonderful. And so, it’s all that and then some.”