The late Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) was a great American, and a courageous leader of the civil rights struggle — which is exactly why it was wrong of him to claim that the Tea Party was racist, and had used the “N-word” against him in 2010.
It was late March, and the House of Representatives was about to vote on Obamacare, which Democrats were pushing through on a party-line vote. Tens of thousands of protesters, many affiliated with the Tea Party, gathered at the Capitol.
I was there, for part of the protest. It was passionate, but it was also civil.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was jeered when she and fellow Democrats, including Lewis, staged a provocative march through the crowd, but that was it.
Lewis then made the extraordinary claim, reported by McClatchy, that demonstrators had shouted the “N-word” at him and at fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Other members of the caucus claimed they heard it, too.
The incendiary claim was picked up by the mainstream media. Republican leaders rushed to condemn the protesters.
The Tea Party was tarnished — permanently — by Lewis’s accusation of racism. It became a toxic brand to many Americans.
But it was not true.
Somehow, with thousands of cameras present, no one had filmed evidence Lewis’s claim. Andrew Breitbart offered $10,000, then $100,000 to the United Negro College Fund if video evidence emerged. It never did.
Accusations of racism were hardly new in American politics. But the smearing of the Tea Party marked the first time an entire movement of ordinary people — not politicians — was smeared as racist. And it stung because of Lewis’s stature.
The following year, Herman Cain emerged on the political scene.
Cain had risen from poverty to success. As CEO of Godfather Pizza, he brought the company from bankruptcy to profitability. He wanted to do the same for America.
He electrified the early Republican Party presidential primary debates in 2011 by offering a simple, catchy formula: “Nine, nine, nine.” He would replace the tax system with a 9% tax on personal income, sales, and corporate income.
In a crowded field of candidates who seemed stuck on their political talking points, “9-9-9” cut through the jargon. The phrase became familiar even to Democrats — much the way Donald Trump’s signature phrases would catch on in 2016.
As a black conservative, Cain was embraced as proof that Republicans were not racist, and it was not racist to oppose Barack Obama, though he was the first black president.
This was not tokenism; for Cain, it was a matter of conviction.
Cain once declared on CNN: “There is no more racist element in the Tea Party than there is in the general population at large. … This is the biggest misperception … I have spoken at hundreds of Tea Parties. It’s not a racist organization.”
Where Lewis smeared the Tea Party as the return of white mobs opposing civil rights, Cain defended the Tea Party as a legitimate grass roots revival. John Lewis saw the worst of America in the Tea Party; Herman Cain saw the best.
We should not overstate their differences. They deserve to be remembered for more than partisan disputes.
Both were extraordinarily successful in their careers: Lewis as an activist and Cain as a businessmen. Both won, against the odds.
Both had more in common than race, or childhood poverty. Lewis and Cain were both Americans who believed that our political and economic system, though flawed, could be harnessed for good. And both stood proudly for civil rights.
What Lewis failed to recognize is that the Tea Party, too, fought for the civil rights of all against a left-wing power grab that would trample liberty.
Herman Cain stood with them. In so doing, he defended the dignity and freedom of millions.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). His new book, RED NOVEMBER, tells the story of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary from a conservative perspective. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.