We’ve come to celebrate John Lewis

He was born into the world of Jim Crow. He died in the world of COVID19. Both wrapped a stranglehold around our country. And, through both, John Robert Lewis emerged, through deeds, words, vision and leadership to leave an enduring legacy for us to follow. 

Julie and I watched much of the coverage of his homecoming trip traversing the places in which this quiet young boy from Troy, Alabama, made history. It was a revisiting that set up eloquent and ironic moments when depicted against time and a different era in our country. Nothing said more than his final trip across the Edmund Pettus Bridge as members of the Alabama state troopers honored him with salutes as a horse-drawn carriage carrying his body crossed over, juxtaposing how they received him when he led the march across that same bridge, a bridge named to honor a Confederate general and head of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan. Fifty-five years ago, state troopers met him and his fellow demonstrators with billy clubs and tear gas, cracking the young leader’s skull.

Time Magazine cover after Lewis died

In the Rotunda in the Nation’s Capital, while his body lay in state, his colleagues from both the House and the Senate, paid tribute. The most meaningful moment for me came when Speaker Pelosi played the audio from John’s 2014 commencement address to Emory students. His voice was full of life and joy for the students on their day and it filled the Rotunda. As he saluted the students’ accomplishments and urged them to enjoy the moment, to have a good time, he reminded them of what is now their charge: To get in the way. To get into trouble, necessary trouble, good trouble. 

I listened to that address again on Friday morning as I was walking through the neighborhoods near my home. How genuine, how humble and caring his voice resonated. How reassuring. And, how filled with commitment and prophecy. I urge you to give it a listen, again if you’ve heard it before. In this day and time, you can not get too much of his words. 

Thankfully Lewis lived through countless other beatings at the hands of law enforcement to march forward as a young leader of non-violent civil rights movement. Through it all, he showed his character. Loving. Courageous. Hard-working. Funny. Benevolent.  I wondered how a man who had gone through so much, faced so many white people who hated him for his black skin, who denied him at every turn the promises they enjoyed in America. How could he remain such a gentle soul after a lifetime of suffering racism? How could he love those who did not love him back? It’s a question answered by his life lived wholly. It showed us all the way forward; it took a mountain of Willpower, commitment to the Cause, an Ocean of Hope and a Forgiving Heart.

The journey of his homegoing finally led to Atlanta, his adopted home and base. On Thursday, July 30, starting at 11 a.m., at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church of Reverend King, Sr. and Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., and now, Reverend Raphael Warnock, brought him home to let others pay tribute to his completed life. 

Op Ed by John Lewis

I learn a lot from funerals. Something always surprises me. Lewis’s service proved that true again. And, this was no ordinary service because John Lewis was no ordinary man. Three former presidents. The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, 50 members who served along side of him in Congress, and, Senators Kamala Harris and Corey Booker. 

COVID 19 played a role throughout the service; social distancing reduced the capacity of the sanctuary and all attendees that I saw wore masks, reducing the humanity of the event. Yet, it did not reduce the significance of the ceremony, the compassion for the man, the sadness, grieve and joy in John Lewis’ life. 

I marveled at the number of local, state and national dignitaries attending and the words of those invited to speak. Here are some of the choice words from the day that moved me.

Reverend Warnock, who officiated the service, said, “Instead of preaching sermons he [Lewis] became one. He loved America until America learned how love him back. 

“Here lies a true American patriot who risked his life and limb for the hope and promise of democracy. He was wounded by America’s transgressions… Let the nation say AMEN!”

The following is the Edited prayer by Dr. Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., on behalf of the entire King Family. 

“We are eternally grateful, oh God, that he lived among us for four score years and demonstrated on that bridge that physical force is no match for soul force.”

Dr. King then listed the issues that still separate Black Americans from the same freedoms experienced daily by White Americans invoking the country to get into good trouble to overcome:

“…radical reform in policing in our nation. 

“…until voter suppression is no longer apart of our body politic. 

“…until there is an equitable wage. 

“…until all labor is treated with dignity. 

“…until the school, the prison pipeline is nonexistent and every child gets an equitable education. 

“…until white supremacy around the world is uprooted in all of our policies and everyday practices no longer reflect white supremacy. 

“…until this nation truly becomes a compassionate nation because, as Daddy reminded us, ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. 

“…until black bodies are no longer a threat in this world, and black lives have equitable representation, power and influence in every arena.” 

“Grant us finally, Father God, that a double portion to get into good trouble until love becomes the way we live, the way we lead, the way we legislate, and until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The honorable George W. Bush, who was president the last time the voting rights act was authorized, told the story of working together with John to create the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. 

“Listen, John and I had our disagreements, of course,” said Mr. Bush, a Republican. “But in the America John Lewis fought for, and the America I believe in, differences of opinion are inevitable elements and evidence of democracy in action.”

President William Jefferson Clinton said, “John always kept walking to reach the beloved community. He got into a lot of good trouble along the way, but let’s not forget, he also developed an absolutely uncanny ability to heal trouble waters. When he could have been angry and determined to cancel his adversaries, he tried to get converts instead. He thought the open hand was better than the clenched fist.”

House Majority Leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi said, “He wanted us to see the civil rights movement through his eyes.” She spoke on the commonality of President Abraham Lincoln and John Lewis. “We got to know John from his speech on the steps of the Lincoln memorial. 

“And now, John’s body lay in state in the nation’s capital on the platform that held Lincoln’s body.”

Pelosi went on to remark that a double rainbow appeared over his casket in front of the Capital. There was no rain, just a double rainbow. She believed that Lewis was telling us that “I’m home in heaven.” 

If you were to go and watch only a few of the speakers, I highly recommend that you watch the Reverend Dr. James Lawson’s tribute. I am embarrassed to say that I have not heard of Lawson but I intend to learn more from him. To me, he was the surprise of the funeral. What a mind, presence and force. He and John met during a formative time in Nashville in the 50’s. They have been friends in the deepest sense of the word, ever since. Here are some of his words and his points of reflection and direction on behalf his comrade in arms: 

“Most of the books are wrong about how John Lewis got into the movement. Sixty years ago was the time of sit-ins that swept into every state in the nation. Black women made the decision that it was going to happen in Nashville with this confluence of people. 

“John Lewis had no choice in the matter. You should understand that. John saw the malignancy of racism in Troy that formed in him a sensibility that he had to do something about it. He was convinced that he was called to do whatever he could do, get into good trouble, to stop the horror that so many folk lived through. 

“At an early age we recognized the wrong under which we were forced to live and we swore to God that we would do what we had to do in order to put on the table of the nation’s agenda…this must end! Black Lives Matter!!

“John Lewis must be understood as one of the leaders of the greatest advance of Congress and the White House on behalf of We the People of the USA. 

“We need the Constitution to come alive!

“We will not be quiet as long as our economy is shaped not by freedom but by Plantation Capitalism that continues to cause domination and control rather than access, liberty and equality for all.” 

Professor Lawson ended his tribute quoting the famed Black poet Langston Hughes, “I dream a world where no human, no other human was scorned…where love will bless the earth and peace its paths adorned.”

Jamila Thompson, Lewis’ Deputy Chief of Staff, said, “He created the space. A family. As a staff we are heartbroken, we are lost.” 

And, she reiterated her mentor’s lifelong belief and mantra, “Be kind. Be mindful. Recognize the dignity and work of everyone. For the love of God, please vote.” 

I also loved the remarks of his niece, Sheila Lewis O’Brien, as she expressed the thanks from the family. I got the feeling of just how tightly knit they were by her description of their gatherings. She smiled and said, “Uncle Robert,” as he was known to the family, “was always picture ready.” 

“Because of you, John.” 

The words Barack Obama wrote on John’s program from the inauguration.

And then, the time came for which all had waited. President Barack Hussein Obama II took the pulpit. One of the greatest writers and orators to hold the presidency, he reminded me of so much that we have missed over these almost four years. Obama knows how to tell a story, and his powerful eulogy put heart, courage, muscle, context, pain, suffering, hope and triumph together in ways that inspired me to keep the faith. 

He told the story of meeting Lewis for the first time when he was in law school. Obama introduced himself and said, “Mr. Lewis, you are one of my heroes.” Lewis gave him an “Aw shucks” grin, shook his hand and thanked him.

The next time they met, Obama had won his Senate seat and he told Lewis, “John, I’m here because of you. And on inauguration day in 2009, he was one of the first people I greeted and hugged on that stand. And I told him, ‘This is your day too.’”

“John Lewis will be a founding father of the fuller, fairer, better America. He believed that in all of us there’s the capacity for great courage. He believed in us even when we didn’t believe in ourselves.”

And then Obama turned his attention to the people in power and the state of our country today, saying that that is what John would want him to do. To speak out. 

“John spent his life fighting for democracy. He knew that it depends on whether we summon a measure, just a measure, of John’s moral courage to question what’s right and what’s wrong and call things as they are. 

“If we want our children to grow up in a democracy, not just with elections, but a true democracy, a representative democracy, and a big hearted, tolerant, vibrant, inclusive America of perpetual self-creation, then we’re going to have to be more like John. 

“Keep getting into good trouble. Make the powers that be uncomfortable. 

“The voting rights act is one of the crowning acts of our country. You want to honor John, let’s do so by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for. 

“Like John, we’ve got to keep getting into that good trouble. He knew that nonviolent protest is patriotic, a way to raise public awareness, and put a spotlight on injustice, and make the powers that be uncomfortable. If you don’t do everything you can do to change things, they will always remain the same.

“He could not have been prouder to see this new generation of activists standing up for freedom and equality. A new generation that was intent on voting and protecting the right to vote. In some cases, a new generation running for political office. And I told him, ‘All those young people, John, of every race and every religion, from every background and gender and sexual orientation, John, those are your children.’ 

“And that’s what John Lewis teaches us. That’s where real courage comes from. Not from turning on each other, but by turning towards one another. Not by sowing hatred and division, but by spreading love and truth. Not by avoiding our responsibilities to create a better America and a better world, but by embracing those responsibilities with joy and perseverance, and discovering that in our beloved community, we do not walk alone. What a gift John Lewis was. We are all so lucky to have had him walk with us for a while and show us the way. God bless you all. God bless America. God bless this gently soul who pulled it closer to its promise.

“Thank you very much.”

If you made it to this point, bless you. I hope that the words and sentiments of these people, brought together safely in the time of COVID19, makes you feel. Feel for the mighty and just fight for justice which John Lewis fought using his open hand, his forgiving heart and his undying belief in his country to do the right thing.

Now, let’s do it. Get into good trouble. Necessary trouble. Get in the way. And, VOTE!

More reading:

Harvard Gazette remembers Lewis

Washington Post Article on Lewis

Opinion Piece in WAPO on the day of Lewis’ funeral

From Time magazine

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