The recent death of John Lewis has caused a rush of memories to come forward. He was a hero. His many years of service in the US Congress paled in comparison with the acts of his youth. He was elected to Congress by defeating none other than Julian Bond who had made an impact himself as a member of the Georgia legislature, the first Black man nominated as Vice President of the United States and eventually Chairman of the NAACP. Julian was eloquent and distinguished. He was a fighter in his own right. But Julian was no John Lewis.
John Robert Lewis was born in Troy, Alabama, the son of sharecroppers. His plan to be a preacher was derailed by his intolerance of the injustice he saw around him. In spite of the warnings of his parents he was determined to speak up and to cause “good trouble”. He had already determined as a teenager that the model of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Junior in Montgomery, where he went to meet them, was the path to achieving equality in America. He dedicated his life to this. He was arrested more than 40 times in his efforts. From the Freedom Rides, to the Sit-Ins, to the Marches (most famously at the Edmund Pettis Bridge where he was beaten near death by State Troopers), through being President of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (where he was replaced), to being the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, to the Atlanta City Council, to Congress, John Lewis never lost his way.
There are two examples that show the courage and determination of John Lewis. The first was the Museum of African American History and Culture. Many of us have visited this museum and beamed with pride as the history of Black America is displayed. From the middle passage, through slavery, to Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement , the history of Black contributions to this country and culture is told. We don’t think of the 15 years John Lewis labored in Congress to make this place a reality. But he did. He was determined that this would become a reality. And he made it happen. The second was his support of Barack Obama. The Clintons had been good friends of Representative Lewis. He was very loyal to his friends and decided he would support Hillary. Though anguished, he decided he was on the wrong side and came to support Barack Obama. His words were “I cannot be on the wrong side of history.” Though a tough decision had to be made, Barack could not have had a stronger supporter. Of course, He was elected as the first and only Black President of the United States.
I must admit I am a child of the sixties. I marched. I went to jail. I integrated. But not one time did I get beaten. I sometimes wonder if I would have been as courageous if I had seen or faced death. I doubt it. I was fortunate to meet John Lewis a number of times. He was very humble and appeared ordinary. He was not very tall and he did not speak fluently. But he was eloquent and he was strong. He was courageous. He was a hero.
Often we do not recognize greatness even when it in our midst.