In the Presence of John Lewis…

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President Obama presents Congressman John Lewis with Presidential Medal of Freedom. Image commons.wikimedia.org

Last night, Georgia Congressman John Lewis, one of my personal heroes, died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 80.

It was four years ago that I attended a political rally in a church in a neighboring community. Congressman Lewis had come to town to try to help a younger candidate win a seat to join him in the House of Representatives.

The church was packed with a heartwarmingly diverse crowd: all variations on the color spectrum, differing faiths or no faith, young and old, men and women.

I was thrilled to be so close to Lewis. Ever since seeing the video of the brutal beating he’d received on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, which left him with a fractured skull but a resilient spirit, he’s been my ideal of the finest and bravest of Americans. He adhered to his belief and practice of nonviolence throughout his lifetime. 

That beating by state troopers in riot gear became known as “Bloody Sunday.” The images of the attacks led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which President Lyndon Johnson signed into law shortly thereafter. 

Lewis’s long and storied history as a leader in the civil rights movement began with lunch counter sit-ins that ultimately succeeded in desegregating public facilities in Nashville. That was the beginning. But the first time he was arrested, his family was ashamed, as they’d taught him “don’t get into trouble.”

However, once he’d met with Dr Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, he knew what he had to do. He had to “get into trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.” He paid a high personal price for that trouble, but his impact was huge.

It wasn’t just his bravery. It was his humility and generosity of spirit. To some, his willingness to forgive was unfathomable. 

Writes Michael Fletcher in The Undefeated:

“My apprehension was rooted in the mistaken notion that Lewis was not angry enough. Why did he not demand revenge for the unspeakable racism he fearlessly confronted? How could he accept an apology from former Alabama governor George Wallace, a longtime segregationist who ordered the infamous Bloody Sunday attack on the bridge? Or forgive the pathological Bull Connor, the former public safety commissioner in Birmingham, Alabama? 

“Why would he forge a relationship with former Klansman Elwin Wilson, who was part of a mob that in 1961 beat down Lewis and other Freedom Riders outside the whites-only waiting room at the Rock Hill, South Carolina, bus station?

“But over the years my ambivalence melted into reverence as I came to better appreciate the power of Lewis’ grace. It armed him with undeniable moral authority that allowed him to change minds, and hearts. His willingness to forgive, along with his bravery and contempt for injustice were among the sturdiest pillars of his greatness.

“Wilson apologized to Lewis years after his crimes and sought to atone for them. Lewis accepted his apology, went on television with the former Klansman and even hosted him at his congressional office. After Wilson died in 2013, Lewis reflected kindly on his example.

‘Elwin Wilson shows us that people can change,’ Lewis said. ‘And when they put down the mechanisms of division and separation to pick up the tools of reconciliation, they can help build a greater sense of community in our society, even between the most unlikely people.”

Lewis had received similar vindication when he’d returned to Selma on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday in 1998, as he had every year. Selma’s mayor, Joseph T. Smitherman, who had been mayor when the attack occurred in 1965, gave Lewis a key to the city. 

Said Smitherman:

“Back then, I called him an outside rabble-rouser. Today I call him one of the most courageous people I’ve ever met.”

In his years in Congress, Lewis became known as the “conscience of the Congress.” He worked to create what Dr Martin Luther King had called “a beloved community”—a world free of racism, poverty, and war. He was identified with healthcare reform, justice, voting rights, immigration, and gun control.  

Another indelible image I have of him followed the mass shooting in an Orlando, Florida night club in 2016. To protest Congressional inaction after yet another gun massacre, he led a sit-in among Democratic members of Congress on the floor of the House of Representatives.

When we eventually do get the sensible gun legislation that the majority of Americans want, I hope it will bear his name. And I’m fairly sure that the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma will soon be renamed in his honor.

Lewis was gratified by the global demonstrations that followed the killing of George Floyd in May. He viewed the diverse actions against systemic racism as “a continuation of his life’s work,” reported The New York Times (which is the source of several items in this post).

He told an interviewer from CBS This Morning that:

“It was very moving, very moving to see hundreds of thousands of people from all over America and around the world take to the streets—to speak up, to speak out, to get into what I call ‘good trouble.’ This feels and looks so different. It is so much more massive and all inclusive. There will be no turning back.”

In President Obama’s remarks on Lewis’s death, he wrote that when they’d last spoken after the demonstrations,

“I told him that all those young people — of every race, from every background and gender and sexual orientation — they were his children. They had learned from his example, even if they didn’t know it. They had understood through him what American citizenship requires, even if they had heard of his courage only through history books. 

“Not many of us get to live to see our own legacy play out in such a meaningful, remarkable way. John Lewis did. And thanks to him, we now all have our marching orders — to keep believing in the possibility of remaking this country we love until it lives up to its full promise.”

In the church where I heard him speak four years ago, Lewis described his early life as the son of sharecroppers. He told us he’d gotten his start preaching to the chickens outside his modest home. He minced no words in describing the horrors he’d been subjected to as a young peaceful demonstrator. He made us smile, he made us laugh, he made us weep, and he inspired us. And his magic helped his candidate, who won in a largely Republican district.

I had brought with me a copy of March, the autobiographical graphic novel trilogy about the Civil Rights movement that he had written for young people with Andrew Aydin, which was illustrated by Nate Powell. I had bought it for my grandson and was hoping I could get Lewis to autograph it. I came close.

As he made his way out the side door, mobbed by well-wishers, I was one person away from shaking his hand and handing him the book. And then he was gone. 

Here is a video of John Lewis receiving The National Book Award for March–one of several awards it garnered.

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Note: A documentary, “John Lewis; Good Trouble,” has just been released. 

Continue reading “In the Presence of John Lewis…”