Craven County Commissioner Theron McCabe didn't grow up reading about John Lewis in history books. His role in the Civil Rights movement wasn't discussed in classrooms at Havelock School. But McCabe understood, through images on TV and the words of his own father, that the Alabama native’s struggle was his own.
During an interview with the Sun Journal, McCabe described the impact the late Civil Rights leader and U.S. Representative from Georgia had on his life, and the work for racial equality that continues.
In 1965, when McCabe was in the 10th grade, Lewis was nearly killed while leading a group of protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. to draw attention to the need for voting rights in the state. In an incident which became known as Bloody Sunday, armed Alabama police attacked the civil rights demonstrators. Lewis was knocked to the ground and struck in the head with a billy club, fracturing his skull.
The Selma march was the culmination of several turbulent years during the early 1960s during which Lewis was at the forefront of the Civil Right Movement. He served as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1963 to 1966 and, prior to his death on July 17, was the last surviving member of the "Big Six" group of leaders who organized the 1963 March on Washington.
"You’d see a few things on TV back then but we really didn't have that much technology, but you did see it on the news," recalled McCabe. "That’s kind of how I got to know the man along with Martin Luther King, Jr., who was a great inspiration to people’s lives."
McCabe, who grew up in the Harlow community in Craven County, said he saw first hand the repercussions of segregationist policies in the early 1960s.
"There were stores where you’d have to go in the back door. There would be one water fountain for whites and another one labeled colored," he remembered.
McCabe recalled that his father, the late Rev. Roy McCabe, would discuss the developing Civil Rights Movement with his family.
"My father discussed a lot with us because he came up in the 1920s, so he knew about John Lewis’s struggle and what he had been through. He talked about segregation, about the right to vote," recalled McCabe.
After graduating from high school in 1967, McCabe moved to Brooklyn, NY, where he worked as an officer with the New York City Police Department. He was later promoted to detective and assigned to the Drug Enforcement Administration and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Division. Following his retirement in 1995, McCabe returned to Craven County and was elected to the Board of Commissioners in 2006.
"When I came back I got very involved in helping people in the community. I felt then that something good was going to come to me by helping people," said McCabe.
On March 8, 2010, nearly forty years to the day of the historic Selma march, McCabe got a chance to meet Lewis during a conference of the National Association of County Commissioners in Washington, DC. Lewis signed McCabe’s copy of his book, "Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement" with the inscription "To Theron, Keep the Faith, John Lewis 3-8-10.
Though Lewis was only nine years older than McCabe, the county commissioner said the impact of meeting the man he had heard about since his early teenage years was nearly overwhelming.
"I got cold bumps and chills to meet a man who went through what he did in his life, just to be able to take a picture and shake his hand," he remembered. "I thought about it and said ‘Could I do what he’s done? The beatings and brutality he faced in those days, would I be able to do it?’ I don't think I could have."
Asked what he’s learned from the example Lewis set in his own life, McCabe responded, "He taught me to never give up, never give in, to never stop fighting for what’s right for all."
As a black man who has both experienced the consequences of racial discrimination and served on the police force of the nation’s largest city, McCabe said he believes the demonstrators of today could also take lessons from Lewis’s legacy of nonviolent protest.
"If you want to change your life you do not have to go out there and tear down statues and burn down buildings," he commented. "If you want to change go out and vote, that’s the only way to get things done."