Humility, self-sacrifice, integrity, a lifetime of putting service over self, and a deep and genuine faith in the power of kindness and love.
These days, such descriptors may not be what come to mind when one hears the word “politician,” but they are all embodied in the person and life of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat.
Lewis recently announced that he is battling stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Of all the people I know in Congress, he is the person I admire most. There would be almost unanimous agreement among other Democrats in Congress, and a great many Republicans share the sentiment as well.
How does someone of such humble beginnings, a sharecropper’s son born in “a little bitty shotgun shack,” as Lewis used to say, rise to such levels of respect for so many? What lessons can we gain from his example to improve our own lives as individuals? And how would government and politics today be different if more people followed Lewis’ example?
For those who may not know his story, an iconic cover photo from a March 1965 Life magazine shows a young, determined Lewis walking in his suit and coat leading a long line of protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. They were walking from Selma to Montgomery to insist on voting rights. They were walking knowingly and peacefully straight into the jaws of hate, racism and unmitigated brutality.
Lewis’ autobiography, “Walking With the Wind,” describes how and why he came to be at the front of that line, how he was severely beaten and nearly killed on that day and others, and why he embraced nonviolence. He recounts the day in 1963 when he stood by Martin Luther King Jr., when King gave the “I have a dream” speech.
Some years ago, Lewis began to take members of Congress and others on a civil rights pilgrimage to visit the places and people who were part of “the movement.” My wife, Rachel, and I joined one of those pilgrimages, and after three of the most moving days of our lives, on the anniversary of what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” we walked arm in arm beside Lewis and hundreds of others across that same bridge in Selma.
Later, as our group waited in an airport lounge for a return flight to Washington, D.C., there was an opportunity for people to share their thoughts. A young Republican congressman, who went on to a position of leadership but will remain unnamed, said he was so deeply touched by the experience that he wanted to believe if he had been of age at the time he would have been there too, alongside Lewis and the other marchers in their struggle for civil rights and freedom.
Perhaps on such occasions one should not critique what others say, but this took place just a few months after the contested presidential election of 2000, which prompted a Democratic member of the group to respond:
“It is good that we’ve all been inspired by this experience, but let us also be honest. Just a few short months ago voting rights were intentionally and strategically suppressed in key swing states. If you did not stand up for voting rights four months ago, you sure as hell would not have been here marching and risking your life back in 1965.”
Silence fell upon the room.
Lewis himself was too kind to make such an observation, but it was true.
Today, what is even more disturbing than the news of my friend’s illness is the knowledge that many of the challenges Lewis dedicated his life to changing remain and threaten to again distort the upcoming presidential election.
The only solace I can find comes from what Lewis himself used to say to us in his marvelous deep preacher’s voice. “Be strong, my brothers and sisters. Never give up, never give in, never give out. Keep fighting for justice. Do what you know in your heart is right.”
We do not know how much longer John Lewis will be with us in body, but his life and spirit have touched and bettered our lives and our nation forever.