Robert Whittington’s timeless appellation

Congeressman John Lewis, a major figure in the Civil Rights movement and a ceaseless fighter for justice, died Friday, July 17.

On CBS News, Rep Marcia Fudge (Ohio 11) describes Congressman Lewis as “a man for all seasons.” I’m curious where the phrase originated.

It began as a way of describing Thomas More, a juror, philososopher, author (Utopia and other works), and all-round Renaissance man. Robert Whittington (1480–1553), an English grammarian, coined the phrase to encapsulate More’s numerous powerful facets. Whittington’s Vulgaria, published in 1520, pays compliments to Henry VII, Thomas Linacre, and Thomas More, whom Whittington describes as “a man for all seasons.”

Robert Bolt (1924–1995) used the phrase as the title of a play about More, first written as a radio play (1954), teleplay (1957), stageplay (1960), and Oscar-winning film (1966).

Orson Welles as Cardinal Woolsey in A Man for All Seasons.

In Fred Zinnemann’s Oscar-winning film Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) demands the unquestioning loyalty of Thomas More (brilliantly played by Paul Scofield). This theme of loyalty versus morality which resonates with current events.

The 1967 Academy Awards certainly recognized the greatness of the film with eight awards including two Oscars for Fred Zinnemann — including Best Picture as producer and Best Director. Robert Bolt won for his Screenplay based on his stageplay. Paul Scofield won best actor for his portrayal of Thomas More. Robert Shaw was nominated for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Walter Matthau in The Fortune cookie. Wendy Hiller (who played Alice, Thomas More’s wife) was nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role but lost to Sandy Dennis who won for her part in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Ted Moore won Best Cinematography, and Elizabeth Haffenden and Joan Bridge won for Costume Design (Color).

To fully appreciate the greatness of a man like John Lewis, it is useful to see him in the historical context used by his colleagues to describe him. Here are some notes I gathered from Wikipedia:

In 1961, Lewis became one of the 13 original Freedom Riders. He fought against segregation, the American Apartheid, as one of the principle organizers of the 1963 March on Washington.

Lewis became nationally known during his prominent role in the Selma to Montgomery marches when, on March 7, 1965 — a day that would become known as “Bloody Sunday” — Lewis and fellow activist Hosea Williams led over 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. At the end of the bridge, they were met by Alabama State Troopers who ordered them to disperse. When the marchers stopped to pray, the police discharged tear gas and mounted troopers charged the demonstrators, beating them with night sticks. Lewis’s skull was fractured, but he escaped across the bridge to Brown Chapel, a church in Selma which also served as the movement’s headquarters. Lewis bore scars on his head from the incident for the rest of his life.

He became a leader of the Democratic Party in the U.S. House of Representatives, serving from 1991 until his death as a Chief Deputy Whip and Senior Chief Deputy Whip from 2003 to his death.

Yet despite his lifelong struggle for civil rights and to make the world aware of the injustice suffered by black people in the US, Lewis loved life, loved music, loved to dance, and loved the people around him. He was a great friend to everyone who knew him, and for that reason Congressman Fudge called him A Man for All Seasons.

You should, however, avoid at all costs a 1988 version of the Bolt screenplay directed by and starring gun fanatic Charlton Heston because NRA + egomaniacal narcissism.

writer / poet / explorer

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