America just lost one of its most clear-eyed, moral leaders. John Lewis — civil rights hero on the front lines from lunch-counter desegregation in Nashville to Freedom Rides through a hostile South, the last remaining speaker from the August 1963 March on Washington, U.S. Congressman for 34 years, an activist to the end, and conscience for a nation — passed away Friday night after a six-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Representative Lewis was a hero to many because in this age of nonstop blathering nonsense, he spoke plainly about the hope for an America that — as Langston Hughes wrote — is the America that the dreamers dreamed. And he not only spoke, but he walked the talk, most famously when his skull was cracked more than fifty years ago while trying to walk across an Alabama bridge working for justice.
There are many wonderful tributes to John Lewis pouring in. I recommend the statement of President Obama, who — when given a ticket to his history-making inauguration as the nation’s first Black American president to autograph — wrote, “It’s because of you, John,” to Lewis on January 20, 2009.
In his statement, The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II hits at the need to restore the Voting Rights Act, which was passed soon after Lewis spilled his blood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. That law was eviscerated in a cynical decision by Chief Justice Roberts and the Supreme Court in 2013 in spite of 25 years of consistent and strong bi-partisan support for maintaining controls over attempts at voter suppression in states which had shown no inclination to allow the full flowering of democracy. Within hours of that Supreme Court decision, states in the South began restricting voter access and their efforts continue today.
I was privileged and honored to meet Congressman Lewis twice and to hear him speak on both occasions about how important history — and the telling of the full American story — is to our understanding of the present and to building hope for the future. When the National Trust conference was held in Nashville in 2009, Congressman Lewis — speaking in the historic sanctuary of the Downtown Presbyterian Church that was founded by one of my ancestors — challenged us to believe in the idea that,
“My house is your house. My story is your story. The history of my people is the history of all Americans not just African Americans.”John Lewis, Nashville, Tennessee, October 2009
Hearing, understanding, and honoring the full diversity of America’s story is a lifetime of work that helps provide the connective tissue between the me and the we, and leads us to care for something larger than ourselves. The Congressman’s long-time quest to see a museum to African American history on the National Mall in Washington was part of his work for civil rights.
In June of 2018, Lewis sent out the following message on his Twitter account:
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”Representative John Lewis
Lewis knew — from more than five decades in the trenches — that despair creates apathy, and apathy destroys activism. One activist who was in Lewis’s training camps in Mississippi in 1964 noted that “Giving in to despair is lazy surrender.” John Lewis was never lazy, and he never got lost in that sea of despair.
Finally, I encourage you to read the tribute of columnist Eugene Robinson, who wrote that Lewis lived, fought and triumphed by the words of Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
How, then, should we remember this great man? Not with fuzzy, feel-good encomiums but with a clear-eyed look at his monumental accomplishments and the work still left undone.Eugene Robinson, Washington Post, July 18, 2020
That seems to be as good a place to start in how to remember John Lewis as any.
Rest in peace, John Lewis. For everyone else, we need to get back to work on what really matters.
More to come…
Image: John Lewis in 1964 (l) and in 2006 (r)
UPDATE: Former President Barack Obama gave a very moving eulogy on Thursday, July 30th, at the funeral for John Lewis, held at historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. It is long, but worth the effort.