One episode from the life of John Lewis tells a lesson of how we can all thrive by confronting that which terrifies us.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1961, at a Greyhound bus station in Jackson, Mississippi, John Lewis took a sip of water from a whites-only fountain. He did it intentionally. He was only 21 but already a leader in the Civil Rights movement, the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and a key organizer in that summer’s Freedom Rides. He knew he’d be arrested for that sip and was almost gleeful when local cops hauled him to jail.
Then they transferred him to a prison called Parchman.
Every Black man in the South knew about Parchman. “A separate, truly evil place created to make sure that there was a worse hell than everyday life for Blacks in Mississippi,” David Halberstam later wrote. Guards frog-marched Lewis to the maximum-security wing, stripped him of his clothes, watched Lewis shower while pointing their loaded rifles at him and joking about his genitals, then frog-marched him back to his cell, naked. They cut off his facial hair, threw at him a pair of green khaki shorts and an undershirt labelled MISSISSIPPI STATE PENITENTIARY, and told him to sleep on the rough mattress in the corner.
The guards and prison staff denied Lewis the right to see his fellow Freedom Riders. They denied him his mail. They dumped salt in his food until it was inedible. When at night he protested by singing freedom songs, the guards snapped, “Shut up, n — — “ and turned a fire hose on him. They told him they’d take his mattress if he kept singing. Lewis eyed them, never backing down, and threw the mattress out himself.
He slept that night on the cell’s concrete floor, wet and shivering.
Parchman was fear and degradation and near-total isolation for all of Lewis’ 27 days there. Toward the end it was also a glorious place because John Lewis came to master it. Parchman did not break him. When his sentence ended for that sip of water he boarded a train back to Nashville, SNCC’s base, and smiled to himself. What else can I do with my life?
He did a lot. He marched to Washington with Martin Luther King. Led the March to Selma, and because of it suffered a fractured skull from a billy club-wielding racist cop. He then served 17 terms in Congress, this man who was once an introverted seminary student, the son of a sharecropper, who did not trust his own opinion because he did not find it worthy. The Civil Rights Movement changed that. Parchman changed that.
“Unearned suffering is redemptive,” Lewis later said.
By that he meant that we can turn our pain, even the sort that is unfair and not our doing, into a principle that can guide our life. We can realize that problems don’t happen to us; they happen for us. The problems, the pain, they are meant for us to learn from them. We are meant, we are destined even, to transcend them.
That’s what John Lewis did in Parchman. He learned about his fear, and learned to master it because Parchman was so fearsome. Had he not been put in such an awful situation he would not have gained such a probing insight.
So whatever scares you most, walk toward it, because as John Lewis knew: There is redemption in that which terrifies us.
Let me know in the comments or by email about the time you walked your fear, and how it turned out.
New to my writing? I’m a best-selling author who’s written for The New Yorker, GQ, ESPN, and New York, among other titles. My first book, The Saboteur, was optioned by DreamWorks to be turned into a film. I’m now at work on a second book for Celadon about a pivotal 10-week period in the Civil Rights Movement that still defines our lives.
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