Image: John Lewis, Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, speaking at the Lincoln Memorial to participants in the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. (Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
These days I’ve been wrestling with my Patriotism. Those in power weaponizing fear, lies, brutality, and hate have really put a shadow in my spirit. I have been frustrated looking for ways I can help. Ways I can illuminate. Ways I can help protect and heal all the good people in this fight. Turning to the pen has been my only release. Knowing how much better the World will be when we are on the other side of this has been cold comfort. I am a doer. Not being allowed to return stateside and march along side the Revolutionaries or provide sustenance or embraces is a pain I am not used to. I need to help. I need to be part of the solution. I am looking for ways I can be of service. Until I can, I will write. I will not silently witness and say nothing. I have to. I was born to love and care, to not be in a position to is heavy weight indeed. In this new place of pause, I began to look at my heroes. What did they do? How did they help? I looked at Miss Fannie Lou, at Mother Coretta, and my personal hero from the Big 6, Mr John. Robert Lewis.
Sadly, he has just passed away. But as the American Saint he truly was, he left me much wisdom and comfort. Watching the week’s tributes and memorializing of Honorable John Lewis has refreshed me. Remembering all he’d personally gave/gifted/sacrificed for equality has reignited my fervor. By watching him and other Leaders protest, march, and serve has truly mended some of the places in my heart where Bigots and cowards have bruised it.
“There comes a time when you have to say something. You have to make a little noise. You have to move your feet. This is the time.”
Mr. Lewis’ ministry of Loving America exemplifies all the ways America belongs to me and other Americans of color, as much as it belongs to white Americans. He has shown me how I can be a Patriot while protesting and insisting on changes, long overdue.
In 1955 at age 15, Lewis heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr on the radio. He said it was like hearing a trumpet in his spirit. He knew that he was called to take up this cause. What a remedy for his great disappointment that the 1954 Supreme Court ruling of Brown V the Board education did not alter his school life. He often overheard his parents talking about Klan violence and what it meant for him and everyone they knew. The unfairness and cruelty really affected him. Emboldened by Dr. King, he knew he needed to join this fight. He joined the Bus Boycotts as a Freedom Rider that same year. In 1957, Lewis left Alabama to attend the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee. There, he learned about nonviolent protest and helped to organize sit-ins at segregated lunch counters.
In 1963, Lewis became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. That same year, he helped plan the March on Washington. Making him one of the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement, and the youngest person to speak at the now infamous March.
1964, the Civil Rights Act became law. It still had little to no effect in the South. Black people were still being openly brutalized and harassed. To bring attention to this struggle, Lewis and Hosea Williams led a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. After crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the marchers were attacked by state troopers. Lewis was severely beaten again, this time suffering a fractured skull. The violence was recorded and shown all across America. “Bloody Sunday,” sped up the passage of 1965’s Voting Rights Act.
Devastated by the assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy in 1968, Lewis continued his work and became director of the Voter Education Project. During his tenure, the VEP helped to register millions of minority voters.
In 1986, he was elected to the House of Representatives. Representing Georgia’s 5th District. Since entering office, he has called for healthcare reform, measures to fight poverty and improvements in education. Most importantly, he oversaw multiple renewals of the Voting Rights Act.
The mass shooting June 12, 2016, in Orlando, Florida, inspired Lewis to lead a sit-in comprised of approximately 40 House Democrats on the floor of the House of Representatives on June 22nd to bring attention and implore Congress to address gun violence with definitive legislative action. “We have been too quiet for too long,” Lewis said. “There comes a time when you have to say something. You have to make a little noise. You have to move your feet. This is the time.”
After Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, Lewis stated that “When we were organizing voter-registration drives, going on the Freedom Rides, sitting in, coming here to Washington for the first time, getting arrested, going to jail, being beaten, I never thought — I never dreamed — of the possibility that an African American would one day be elected president of the United States.”
No fan of Trump, Mr. Lewis said “I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected and they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton,” Lewis said in the interview. He also did not attend Trump’s inauguration.
Congressman John Lewis in Washington in 2009 (© Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images)
Lewis believed in youth as a big part of the solution to the world’s ills. He reached out to the youth by helping to create a series of graphic novels about his work in the civil rights movement. In 2016, he won the National Book Award for the third installment in the series March: Book Three, which marks the first time a graphic novel has received the honor. He accepted the award with co-writer Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell and spoke of its significance in an emotional acceptance speech. “Some of you know I grew up in rural Alabama, very poor, very few books in our home,” Lewis said. “I remember in 1956, when I was 16 years old, going to the public library to get library cards, and we were told the library was for whites only and not for coloreds. And to come here and receive this honor, it’s too much.”
He also spoke about the importance of books in his life. “I had a wonderful teacher in elementary school who told me: ‘Read, my child, read’, and I tried to read everything,” he said. “I love books.”
In December 2019, Lewis announced that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer
Lewis passed away on July 17, 2020.
His examples of service to his state and his people with dignity, factual truth, hard work, and humility are exactly the behaviors I hope to emulate.
I want to show this world the best America has made.
In his Honor, I promise to Love. I promise to listen. I promise to go to empathy before rage. I promise to never remain silent. I promise to Lead. I promise to never ever watch suffering I can somehow lessen. I am proud to be an American in the tradition of the Honorable John Lewis.