The death of John Lewis has once again brought into sharp focus the stark differences between the congressman and the president.
The future congressman was born as one of 10 children of Alabama sharecroppers Eddie and Willie Mae Carter Lewis. His family was poor, living in a tiny three-room house with no plumbing or electricity. Suffering many abuses and indignities in the Jim Crow era of the South in the 1940s and 1950s, his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all cautioned him: “Don’t go getting’ in trouble” — by which they meant that he should be quiet and accept his place.
He was reminded of that “place” when, as a teenager, Lewis attempted to get a library card at the Pike County Public Library in Troy and was told the library was for whites only and not for “coloreds.”
Meanwhile, the future president was born as one of five children of New York real estate tycoons Fred and Mary Anne MacLeod Trump. His family was privileged, having made their enormous fortune by constructing government-subsidized housing for middle-class families along the East Coast.
In 1954, Fred Trump was called to testify before a Senate subcommittee to answer allegations that he had profiteered from the contracts. By the 1970s, he was accused of discriminating against Blacks and Puerto Ricans, whom he refused to allow to rent his properties — a charge Donald Trump angrily denied in the press. Subsequent investigations alleged that Trump’s father had found ways to avoid millions of dollars in taxes by passing money on to his children. Although Donald Trump famously claimed that he only received a $1 million loan from his father, The New York Times asserts that he actually received more than $400 million.
“Both John Lewis and Donald Trump point to inspiring persons who helped shape their adult lives, but their role models were quite different.”
Both John Lewis and Donald Trump point to inspiring persons who helped shape their adult lives, but their role models were quite different.
Lewis first learned of Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks when he was just 15. As he spoke of their impact, he said, “They inspired me to get in trouble.” The young man met his heroes while he was still a teenager — Rosa Parks when he was 17 and Martin Luther King two years later. King became a mentor for Lewis, and it was from him that Lewis learned the principles and techniques of non-violent resistance. Speaking of his mentor, Lewis testified, “He taught me to be hopeful, to be optimistic, to never get lost in despair, to never become bitter, and to never hate.”
Trump learned some lessons from his hero too. He has said, “My father was my inspiration.” Fred Trump was demanding. He sent Donald off to military school at age 13 when he misbehaved in school and later required his son to begin working for him at the lowest tier in the company. But Donald later became the favorite son, taking over the family business in 1971 and turning it into the Trump Organization. Along the way, emulating his father, Trump absorbed racist ideas, entitled thinking, dishonest business practices and unbridled bravado.
John Lewis was singularly focused his whole adult life. From the time he began to learn from Martin Luther King, he was committed to one goal: acquiring civil liberties and voting rights for African Americans. His leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s organization of sit-ins at lunch counters across the South and participation as a Freedom Rider registering Blacks to vote made him a hero of the civil rights movement. He helped plan the March on Washington in 1963 and was the youngest speaker on the same dais that featured King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. But it was his willingness to shed his own blood as he led 600 peaceful protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965 that secured his place in history.
Donald Trump has not been laser-focused, having diversified his business involvements from real estate to the presidency. But there has been one constant feature: the Trump logo. Hotels, towers and golf courses in multiple cities around America and the world, Miss Teen USA, Miss USA or Miss Universe beauty pageants, the 14-season NBC reality television show The Apprentice and his ever-evolving line of merchandise as varied as neckties, bottled water and political-message T-shirts, caps, mugs and assorted memorabilia sold from the White House “Trump Store” all bear his name — the one-word logo that has consistently been used to promote himself and to make money.
Yet, it is in terms of personal character and integrity that the congressman and the president most radically differ.
“It is in terms of personal character and integrity that the congressman and the president most radically differ.”
Lewis lived his life for others. He sacrificed himself, even risked his own life, for a cause that captured his heart. Elected to Congress representing Georgia’s 5th district and then reelected 16 times, he served 34 years before his recent death from cancer. Respected on both sides of the political aisle, he was dubbed the “Conscience of the United States Congress,” where he championed not only racial justice but gun control measures, LGBTQ rights, immigration reform, women’s equality and laws against genocide.
In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Lewis the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But perhaps Lewis’ greatest award — despite having received 50 honorary doctorates from prestigious universities across the nation — was the Common Ground Award for Reconciliation, which he was given in 2009. He shared the award with Elwin Wilson, a former KKK member who beat Lewis mercilessly in the Rock Hill, S.C., bus station because he dared to enter a whites-only waiting room. Years later, Wilson was the first of his abusers to come forward to apologize and ask for forgiveness, which Lewis said he was compelled by his Christian faith to grant Wilson. When the story circulated in the press, both men were given the award and appeared with Oprah Winfrey to tell their story.
Lewis had taken to heart the dictum he learned from MLK: “Hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”
Trump, on the other hand, has lived life for himself. In a CNN interview before his 2016 election, he admitted he doesn’t regret never asking God for forgiveness because he doesn’t believe he has “much to apologize for.” But Trump is also unaccustomed to forgiving his enemies. At the 2020 National Prayer Breakfast, he infamously attacked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Mitt Romney and other political figures who had displeased or opposed him. Brandishing newspapers with headlines proclaiming “Acquitted,” the president used the time usually reserved for spiritual reflection and bipartisan prayers to tout his own victory over his enemies, the Democrats. Most recently, and perhaps most shamefully, Trump determined not to attend the memorial service honoring John Lewis in the Capitol Rotunda. It seems the president cannot forgive the congressman for snubbing him by not attending his inauguration, or for the times Lewis had been critical of Trump, his tweets, speeches or actions.
John Lewis and Donald Trump have been quite dissimilar persons, and history will certainly treat them differently. Lewis will often be associated with the name “Pettus.” Trump, however, may frequently be characterized by the word “petty.”
Robert P. Sellers is professor of theology and missions emeritus at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, Texas. He is the immediate past chair of the board of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. He and his wife, Janie, served a quarter century as missionary teachers in Indonesia. They have two children and five grandchildren.