John Shearer: Jon Meacham’s Book On John Lewis Mentions Several Chattanooga Connections

Tuesday, October 13, 2020 - by John Shearer

The life of former Congressman and civil rights pioneer John Lewis, who died on July 17, has been praised by many for his efforts to make the United States a better place for all.


And now 1987 McCallie School graduate and nationally known author and news commentator Jon Meacham has chronicled the early part of his story in a recently published book, “His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope.”


In the book are several references to the Scenic City, including the story of an incident involving the formerly Chattanooga-based Krystal during the sit-in movement.



Meacham writes that on Nov. 10, 1960, while Mr. Lewis was in Nashville attending American Baptist College and also participating in the sit-in movement, he and fellow civil rights leader James Bevel heard about three students being attacked at the Krystal on Nashville’s Fifth Avenue North near downtown.


The Black students had tried to order, and after they were told the place was closed and they refused to leave, a waitress poured detergent down their backs, hosed them and turned the air conditioning way up.


After Mr. Lewis and Mr. Bevel arrived and also refused to leave, a manager said they were going to fumigate the place, and as he left, he turned on an insect exterminating fumigator.


They needed an angel to survive, Mr. Meacham writes, and luckily the fire department came to help them after some pedestrian passersby mistook the fumes for smoke from fire and called an emergency number.


Mr. Meacham quotes Mr. Lewis as saying of the incident, “That could have been the end. It really could have. We really thought we could pass out. We would die. I was not eager to die, but I was at peace with the prospect of it.”


Mr. Meacham references the fact that the Krystal chain had been founded in Chattanooga in 1932. At that time, all the Krystals were still owned by the Chattanooga company headed by the Joseph Glenn Sherrill and Rodolph Davenport families.


Of course, countless restaurants besides the Krystal had segregated dining policies at that time, and the Krystal in the years since has become a place where numerous Blacks and other minorities have found jobs and been kindly served.


Another local reference in the book is to the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, which offered training in advancing civil rights causes. The book mentions that Rosa Parks had attended training there in the summer of 1955 prior to the Montgomery bus boycott, while Mr. Lewis came there in 1958. 


The book says he absorbed the lessons there, as well as sang songs and enjoyed the camaraderie with like-minded reformers. Mr. Meacham says that the person there who most impressed Mr. Lewis was Septima Clark, the school’s director of workshops. The reason was that her specialty was working with grassroots people, and that was the group with whom he most identified coming from a humble farm background in Alabama.


Among the other connections, the biography says that he also marched in Nashville with the Rev. C.T. Vivian, who would later serve a church in Chattanooga before working with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta.


On a lighter note, the book also points out that listening to music was a relaxing diversion for Mr. Lewis during the turbulent early 1960s, and Curtis Mayfield – who was a member of the Impressions that featured several Chattanoogans – was one of his favorite singers.


As Mr. Lewis is quoted as saying in the book when he would stop at a restaurant with a jukebox during a break in the difficult civil rights struggles, “I would finally drop that quarter in and punch up Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield or Aretha (Franklin), and I would sit down with my sandwich, and I would let that music wash over me, just wash right through me.”


Mr. Lewis had participated in all the major civil rights events of the early and mid-1960s, and after he and the others were brutally attacked while trying to march in Selma to push for voting rights for all, the book said a couple of FBI agents took a statement from him.


One of them was named John H. Lupton. Further research would be required to see if he was related to the Coca-Cola bottling family in Chattanooga, but John T. Lupton had come to Chattanooga in the late 1800s from Northern Virginia near Washington, D.C., where a lot of FBI agents likely had their roots.


In his Author’s Note and Acknowledgement section at the end, Mr. Meacham writes that he had first met and interviewed Congressman Lewis in 1992. He had apparently been sent to Atlanta to write a story for the Chattanooga Times after the runoff race vote for U.S. senator between Democrat Wyche Fowler and Republican Paul Coverdell. While there, he got some quotes from Mr. Lewis.


Mr. Meacham – who would later become an editor at Newsweek and historical and biographical author, including of a Pulitzer Prize-winning 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson – also acknowledges the help of former Times editor Paul Neely and the late publisher Ruth Holmberg.


Mr. Meacham writes that the book was not intended as a definitive biography, as it covers in detail only his life through the late 1960s. But he wrote it to offer a look at the person many consider a remarkable man, he said.


He said he used quotes taken from Mr. Lewis over the years, including many in conversation with Mr. Meacham, including during the congressman’s waning last months.


The book does feature several metaphors and other eye-catching lines by Mr. Meacham not always found in historical chronicles by other authors.


But maybe that was appropriate for Mr. Lewis, who was short in stature, but stood tall in courage and in pushing for what he believed was morally right.

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