Before meeting him, the picture I had of Lewis was someone with a steadfast faith in our common humanity, an unflagging optimism and a belief in the power of redemption. As I got to know him, it became obvious that my assessment was accurate. His uncommon grace led him to publicly forgive and even form a bond with Elwin Wilson, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan mob who had beaten Lewis and other Freedom Riders at the bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, in 1961. Lewis reasoned that when people “put down the mechanisms of division and separation to pick up the tools of reconciliation, they can help build a greater sense of community in our society, even between the most unlikely people.”
I think his instinct to look for the best of us is part of the reason the congressman organized annual bipartisan pilgrimages to the South with other members of Congress, an effort to bring to life some of the milestones of the civil rights movement. He knew how moving and transformative his firsthand recollections could be, especially in the settings where they took place. There was something almost sacred about retracing his steps in Selma and seeing the site of the Montgomery bus boycott, which was accompanied by his poignant account of what it was like to face down that kind of oppression. The loss of both Lewis and civil rights icon C.T. Vivian on the same weekend earlier this month reminds us how vital it is to preserve the oral histories of people who lived through the civil rights movement and other pivotal moments in American history.
On one of the congressman’s trips, in 2014, we went to Mississippi, where Myrlie Evers-Williams, Medgar Evers’ widow, showed us the house where her husband had been murdered and told us in detail about the night it happened. She spoke frankly and easily with us, likely because of Lewis’ reassuring presence. Because of his desire to bring people together, Evers-Williams and I developed a lasting friendship beginning with that visit.
The congressman then took us to Fannie Lou Hamer’s gravesite in Ruleville, Mississippi, and told stories along with Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton about how Hamer and others were beaten trying to register voters in the Mississippi Delta. As if to give us some respite from the somber tone, we then went to some blues joints in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where I sat with the congressman as he sang and tapped his toes to the blues. If you have seen the viral video of him dancing, you know he had a musical soul.
Perhaps the most touching moment for me was standing with Lewis in Money, Mississippi, where Emmett Till was brutally murdered. I had gotten to know Emmett’s mother, the late Mamie Till Mobley, several years earlier. She had talked about choosing to have an open casket at her son’s funeral so that everyone could see what had happened to him. Her wisdom and strength awes me to this day, and her example was a guiding light for me. Standing on that site with Lewis was very emotional. The congressman shared how he had marched in honor of Emmett. He helped ease the pain of that tragedy by reminding us how Emmett’s murder had been a rallying cry for justice and a turning point in the civil rights movement.
As we rode the buses back to Alabama, we stopped in a rest area, and Lewis, Congressman Steny Hoyer and I went into the restroom. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, racist comments were written on the walls. It was a stark reminder that the struggle was still far from over, and that laws can be changed more easily than deeply ingrained prejudices.
There are so many lessons Congressman Lewis left us that it is hard to know which to be most thankful for. His willingness to sacrifice himself to ensure that all receive the blessings of liberty, the way he espoused nonviolence and showed it to be an effective tool in the quest for justice, and his unwavering moral authority are but a few. But two parts of his legacy stand out to me: his lifelong fight for voting rights and the lesson that all of us can make a difference.
The year 2020 marks two voting-rights anniversaries: the centennial of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote, and the sesquicentennial of the 15th Amendment, ostensibly giving black men the right to vote after the Civil War.
Lewis spent much of his early life fighting to see that Black men and women were able to enjoy those constitutional rights despite the entrenched racism of Jim Crow that prevented them from doing so with poll taxes, literacy tests and violence. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, those rights have been slowly eroded over time by racial gerrymandering, voter ID laws, voter purges and virtual poll taxes, culminating in the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which eliminated the provision in the Voting Rights Act that required certain states to get federal pre-clearance before changing their voting rules. Since then, more than 1,600 polling places have closed, mostly in minority communities. And according to the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, in at least 10 voting-rights decisions since Shelby, courts have found intentional discrimination.
In 2019, a Republican political operative’s plan to dilute Black voting power in North Carolina was revealed. The operative had gerrymandered adjacent districts so precisely that he drew one through the campus of a historically black university, splitting the dorms almost equally between two different districts. That university was North Carolina A&T, the alma mater of the Greensboro Four, less than two miles from the Woolworth’s where they helped start a movement and show the way for Lewis and all the other civil rights activists who followed. Clearly the need to protect the right of all citizens to vote is as pronounced today as it was during the height of the civil rights era.
The other lasting impact Lewis has had is inspiring activism. So many people have followed his example and worked to have the nation live up to its democratic ideals of justice and equality. Many today are students like he was: the young activists of Parkland, Florida, whose advocacy was activated by the plague of gun violence; the countless young people of the Black Lives Matter movement who have continued to march and protest against injustice; the students in Fairfax County, Virginia, who petitioned their school board successfully to remove Robert E. Lee’s name and rechristen the school as John R. Lewis High School, even going so far as to make plans for a “good trouble” social justice committee.