John Lewis ‘loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood …’

Just as with the events of World War II and the holocaust, we are losing our living memory of the Civil Rights movement. With each passing year, there are fewer people remaining who actually bore the blows of batons and the blasts of fire hoses, fewer who rode those buses, made those marches, crossed that bridge. And none of them is John Lewis.

To say that John Lewis was a towering figure of the Civil Rights movement, is underselling him. An eternal agent of peaceful protest, “the conscience of congress,” and a man of such earned dignity, that his presence, in the congress and the nation, was palpable. Some people have gravitas, but Lewis had gravity—pulling others toward their better natures, and toward action. Saying that Lewis the calm center of the movement, is wrong. John Lewis was never calm. He was outraged, ever day and every hour, in the best possible way, seeking “good trouble” right into his final days.

As Lewis himself said when he talked about his pancreatic cancer in 2019. “I have been in some kind of fight—for freedom, equality, basic human rights—for nearly my entire life.” How could anyone be sure they were on the right side of history? If they were fighting alongside John Lewis.

How long has John Lewis been a key figure in the nation? His New York Times obituary was partially written by a man who left that paper in 1978.

It’s difficult to speak about Lewis without pointing at the past. Yes, he endure horrific beatings. Yes, he was a Black man elected to Congress from the South at a time when that alone seemed miraculous. Yes, books can be written about everything he did as one of the “Big Six.” Books have.

But John Lewis wasn’t frozen in 1960s amber. His will wasn’t just in the Civil Rights achievements that came in his 20s, but in the Civil Rights act of 1991. It was also in the 2003 authorization of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall. It was in the sit in that brought 170 House Democrats conducted to bring attention to the need for changes in America’s gun laws in 2016. Lewis was also a pivotal player in the impeachment of Donald Trump. His support for that vote, and his knowledge that this was still another situation where doing the right thing was be the easy thing, was key to giving others the courage to move forward. 

Too often in the last decades, Lewis was forced to spend his energies not on moving the nation forward, but in the struggle to keep it from sliding back. He fought back attempts to derail and defund the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act in Congress, only to see courts and the Trump White House undercut his efforts.

Lewis saw the protests following the police murder of George Floyd as not just a continuation of the struggle from the 1960s, but as a new chapter in that story. He reached out to younger leaders, both giving them the wisdom of his experiencing, and listening to their own stories. Martin Luther King III said that his father was inspired by John Lewis. John Lewis was inspired by many of those he saw leading the Black Lives Matter movement and by the breakthroughs they have achieved. We may be losing our living memory of the events that first brought John Lewis to the attention of the nation, but John Lewis saw that America is still expanding its ranks of Black leaders—and, unfortunately, the ranks of those who have seen firsthand that peaceful protest is still met with violence. If the Congress is in need of a new conscience, there are a million progressive, young Black women and men ready to take on that role.

As he often does, President Barack Obama may have summed it up the best. “John Lewis,” said Obama, “loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise.”

Donald Trump has not yet commented on Congressman Lewis’ passing. Hopefully, it stays that way.

The original version of Lewis’s speech, and the changes he made to soften his words and make them acceptable to those worried about offending the Kennedy administration, can be found here.

Statement from Jimmy Carter on the passing of John Lewis

— The Carter Center (@CarterCenter) July 18, 2020