Wise as Serpents

Joe Elliott

By Joe Elliott –

“If ever a time should come, when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats in Government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.” ~ Samuel Adams

One evening back in the mid-1990s, I sat in a darkened college auditorium listening to Congressman John Lewis of Georgia recount his experiences in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, an era filled with some of the most momentous and violent events in our nation’s history. Rep. Lewis spoke movingly of his first meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (“I’m too young to be of much help,” he told Dr. King, to which the minister replied, “Oh, there’s much you can do! Come join us.”)

John Lewis was an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement. Lewis and other nonviolent Freedom Riders were beaten by angry mobs, arrested and taken to jail.

He spoke of that day in Selma, Alabama when, confronted by police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he and many of his fellow marchers were savagely beaten while maintaining a non-violent stance. He spoke of his own struggles with a then Newt Gingrich-led House of Representatives. Rep. Lewis said that despite its many failings, America had come a long way since the early days of the Movement. Always focus, he advised us, on the good and its power to overcome the dark.

By the end of his talk there were few dry eyes in the house, as we all stood and cheered. We cheered not only Rep. Lewis himself but the very idea of common people everywhere coming together to create an engine of social change like none other before it.

“We ought to all celebrate MLK Day,” historian Taylor Branch once said, “not simply because he and his followers helped create better living conditions for some, but because they opened up the South to a whole new economic rebirth.” There was no “Sunny South” before the Movement, according to Branch.

Freed of the blight of segregation and all its constituent inhibitions, the change made the South for the first time a friendly place for businesses from the North to expand and thrive, bringing in millions and millions of dollars in its wake. Business people especially should celebrate MLK Day, Branch declared, for they, as much as anyone, are the beneficiaries of Dr. King’s efforts.

Congressman John Lewis

John Lewis now serves as one of the last living links to Dr. King and the Movement. He has recently come under heavy criticism for declining to attend the presidential inauguration of businessman Donald Trump, some arguing it was his “patriotic duty” to do so. However, by saying and doing the things he did during the campaign, Trump nullified the possibility of Lewis attending.

For months the basic message emanating from the Republican Party candidate was one of unalloyed enmity and ridicule of ethnic minorities, women, and the disabled. Had Rep. Lewis gone under the circumstances, many, perhaps rightly, would have seen it as a moral betrayal of all that King and the Movement stood for.

Are we now simply supposed to forget all that and put it aside in a grand gesture of nonpartisan support for the new president? No, sorry, it doesn’t work that way. If Donald Trump truly wishes to be the president of all Americans, not just some, as he now claims he does, then appropriate actions must follow. It is not up to us to prove ourselves worthy of his leadership, rather it is for him to prove himself worthy of leading us. Bottom line: Show us the money, Mr. Trump (along with, maybe, the tax returns).

Yes, by all means, love your enemies and do good unto those who hate you, just as Dr. King advised. However, don’t take this to mean you must surrender yourself to spurious exchanges of good-will and phony photo-opps, designed by the opposition to co-opt your support and render your own moral positions suspect. It says in the Book of Matthew that we should be as innocent as doves. Good advice. However, Matthew also advises us in the very same breath to be wise as serpents.

And serpents don’t play around. Neither do brave and experienced patriots like John Lewis.

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