John Lewis lived to stand on the bright yellow BLACK LIVES MATTER painted on the street leading up to the White House. He joined District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser who had ordered the design. True to form, he said, “our minds, bodies and our soul cannot wait for justice. We want justice and we want it now,” sharing the sentiments of Black activists four generations his junior and their allies.
At the time, Lewis was dealing with advanced stage-four pancreatic cancer that he announced last December. But, there he was, standing tall with the help of a cane, once again being a part of history.
The tributes are pouring in from all quarters. Less than a day after the passing of another major civil rights leader, Rev. C. T. Vivian, Lewis succumbed to “…the fight of my life” on July, 17. But fighting for his life was how he started—as a teenage student who wanted to attend a segregated college. That was when he met Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Lewis was one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. Initially thinking he wanted to be a minister, he attended seminary but shifted gears and spent his lifetime on the front lines for social justice.
In my work, I have met many celebrities, from heads of state to musical icons and movie stars. I always liked to observe them when the cameras were not flashing and videotapes not rolling. I watched how they treated their entourage and admiring fans. John Lewis had no entourage and was a genuine and humble person; he was accessible to everyone. He was filled with love and hope for the possibilities of what this democracy could be. Everyone who met him — constituents, fans, and his longtime friends and colleagues alike — always mentioned his humility.
Former King County councilmember, Larry Gossett met John Lewis in the late 1960’s when he worked in Harlem as a VISTA volunteer. They marched together in New York. In remembering John Lewis today, he recalled that Lewis came to Seattle to recognize the county being renamed for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Local activist Ruthann Kurose and her daughter, Mika, got together with Lewis when the Georgia congressman visited Seattle the late 1980’s. As a staff member for then Congressman Mike Lowry, Kurose met Lewis. “He never got the same level of credit as the other major civil rights leaders,” she commented. “He always looked directly at you and paid attention to what you said, unlike so many politicians who would always look beyond you to see the next person to glad-hand.”
Decades later, daughter Mika — who is now a local civil rights attorney — met Lewis when she worked in the Obama White House. He signed her copy of his three-part graphic novel, March.
Watching and listening to John Lewis over the decades, I felt like he was speaking to me and giving me the inspiration to keep on with the struggle for justice — and I know that he inspired millions of others in that same non-violent, gentle way. Watching President Obama’s first inauguration on TV was exciting, but tears didn’t start falling until I saw John Lewis wiping a tear from his eyes. When he was lying in that church, bloodied by police who had beaten him on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he could not have imagined that he would live to see a Black president of the United States of America. But unlike so many of us, he didn’t sit back and relax. He always said that the struggle for justice is not a week or month or year but a lifetime of work.
John Lewis did not live to see HB4, The Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019, even get a hearing in the U.S. Senate, because Mitch McConnell refused to bring it up for discussion. While it would be great to rename the bridge named after a Klansman for John Lewis, Gossett and I agree that he would much rather the Senate pass the bill and ensure that the votes of all citizens are counted.
And in Congressman Lewis’ own words: “never be afraid to get in trouble, good trouble!”
We have our marching orders.
Featured image by Susan Fried