John Lewis: He was Black Lives Matter in the 60’s

Momentous. That is one way to describe the year 2020, which is just seven months in the making. And yet, the year has proven to reveal so much that the word “momentous” feels like a major understatement. 

Consider that in this short time we have witnessed the House of Representatives led by the Democrat majority impeach President Trump on charges of pressuring a foreign government to investigate his then most likely opponent in the upcoming election. We saw the U.S. Senate Republican majority try and acquit the President.  

The coronavirus appeared in the U.S. in March. It has since swept the U.S. causing the largest pandemic in 100 years and killed over 163,000 Americans.

The resulting shutdown necessary to maintain public safety resulted in most of us living our daily lives at home, working, if we were lucky, but out of a job if we worked in the business sectors hit so hard by closures. Unemployment grew to record numbers. The economy dropped to record numbers.

Layered on top of that, the killing by police of Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and George Floyd spurred large and consistent protest marches in the streets across the country and the world, many lasting for days and weeks on end. 

It was in this charged atmosphere of political and civil unrest that Congressman John Robert Lewis passed from this earth.

I wrote about his Homegoing in the last post, his remarkable life of commitment to a singular cause of justice and civil rights for African-Americans, and all Americans. I feel a deepening interest in learning even more about Lewis, his belief in non-violent protests, his move from the Movement into politics. His fight for the civil and human rights of all citizens of this great and challenged country.

Working for Channel 2 WSB-TV for the final 19 years of my broadcasting career put me working side-by-side with journalists who covered the Civil Rights Movement from the epicenter of Atlanta. I turned to former colleagues and continued friends for their perspective on John Robert Lewis.

Dorthey Daniels worked for Channel 2 for over 30 years prior to retiring this past year. During that time she produced many of the station’s most important local programming specials including “Return to Selma” in March of 2015. Anchored by Fred Blankenship, the program covered the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. John Lewis, then 25 years old, led the marchers across the bridge.  

Dorthey Daniels, right, receives an EMMY with her colleague and multiple EMMY winner Monica Pearson, left, looking on.

I asked Dorthey for her take on the recognition of Lewis’ life and her experience of having worked closely with him over the years. 

What struck you watching Lewis’ Homegoing service on July 30th? 

I watched a lot of the funeral and coverage of him from Alabama, Washington D.C. and Atlanta. I thought each service along the way was a unique tribute to him. Well planned. Honestly, before his passing, I doubted that many citizens knew him…and if it had not been for the racial strife we’re going through, I wonder if Lewis’ life and death would have gotten so much national coverage. Things have a way of working out, and I believe his death made some people really see how long this struggle for human rights has been going on.

What struck me from the Atlanta service was President Bush’s speech. I loved that he said, “We [Bush and Lewis] didn’t always agree but that’s the way democracy works.” 

Powerful message. Very much needed.

Were you surprised by Lewis’ Op Ed that ran the day of his funeral? 

No. I was not surprised by the 0p-Ed. He knew his time was running short. He knew there was a lot that still needed to be done. I’m glad God blessed him with the opportunity to have a final word. He could have said so many things in that op-ed. He was so unselfish…not talking about his life, but still encouraging others to keep the faith…still serving literally until his last breath.

You produced “Return to Selma,” the Channel 2 Action News special with Fred Blankenship on the 50th anniversary of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. What stayed with you from working on that and being on that very bridge with him?

Note: Click here to watch “Return to Selma.”

I produced “Return to Selma” in 2015. I approached his office nearly a year before the 50th anniversary and asked if we could go back with him. I knew it would be a special moment. I knew the networks would be there. I’m so glad he told us yes.

A couple of things stayed with me from that day. We arranged for Lewis and his staff to have food when it came time for him to interview with us. They were so grateful, his PR person, Brenda Jones, said no other media offered them anything. We had a local chef in Alabama cook for them and rented out a conference room at the hotel. I remember him sitting there eating, peacefully, quietly and I imagine re-gathering himself for the next round of interviews.

Congressman John Lewis (left) walks with Channel 2 Anchor Fred Blankenship across the Edmund Pettus Bridge during shooting for 50th anniversary special.

       Second, at the end of the interview, Fred showed Lewis a clip of Lewis, Dr. King and Reverend Abernathy at a news conference. Lewis looked like he was 18 years old. His reaction was priceless. He said, “Oh, wow! I’ve seen pictures of this news conference, but not video. This is my first time seeing video of this!!! I remember this very well because I didn’t have a suit and I had to go out and find a cheap one because i didn’t have much money.” 

He asked for a copy of the video and was sincerely grateful when Fred handed him a flash drive with the footage.

       Third, I was impressed with how Lewis spoke so passionately about what happened on that bridge. He remembered every detail: the things he had in his backpack, fruit, book. I thought, how many times has he told this? His conviction was amazing. I’ve seen many, many interviews with him telling the bridge story…but to be there in person and hear what he went through made me so grateful to be in his presence that day.

What questions did you want answered for the program?

Well, again in producer mode, I wanted him and Fred walking across that bridge, a nice lengthy interview for the show and an opportunity for people to hear Lewis in his own words, talk about what happened then and where he thought we were in 2015.

How did meeting him change you and add to your perspective on race in America? 

I had met Lewis many times before at the station. In 2007, Monica and I flew to his office in Washington for an exclusive interview when he announced he would support Obama and no longer support Hillary for president. 

His office was a museum on the civil rights movement: awards, newspaper clippings, billboards and mementos from events. It was like living history. After the Selma special, I learned and appreciated the special place Lewis holds in our history. 

Really, back in the late 50’s and early 60’s he was “Black Lives Matter.” 

They [Civil Rights organizers] were so nervous about what he was going to say at the 1963 march on Washington. He was one of the last speakers. They had a Plan B and C if he didn’t stick to the script but he spoke up and spoke out anyway!!!  What courage!!!!! 

What part of his story affected you the most and why? 

John Lewis was like so many of us growing up in America…knowing this country could do better, be better and had promised its citizens that in nearly every document that we hold sacred as Americans. He inspires me because he heard Dr. King on the radio, knew he had to be a part of the movement, wrote a letter, got an answer and a ticket to come join. He could have easily stayed in Troy and obeyed his parents. That’s what makes our country so great for every single person who comes here or is born here…to have the opportunity to make us better. 

If you could talk to him today, what would you ask him? 

Good question. I think he answered all my questions in that op-ed. It’s a powerful message to current and future generations.

The last time I saw Lewis was in September of 2019, at the grand opening of Tyler Perry studios. He was his customary good natured self.. no entourage, I never saw him with one. He told us how important Perry’s studio was for Georgia and the country. 

I did notice that he looked extremely small and not exactly healthy.

[Editor’s note] When Daniels last saw Lewis he was soon to announce that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He made his diagnosis public in December of 2019, vowing to fight it. “I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life. I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now. While I am clear-eyed about the prognosis, doctors have told me that recent medical advances have made this type of cancer treatable in many cases, that treatment options are no longer as debilitating as they once were, and that I have a fighting chance.”

He died seven months later on July 17, 2020, but not before paying a visit to Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington on June 7th for a private moment to pay his respects to the protests, the protestors and to spirit invoked by Black Lives Matter.

As I said in my former post…we learn a lot from funerals. I’ve also found that often what we learn is that we want to know even more.

Next post, when I looked over the displays of men’s clothing and there, looking at ties, was John Lewis. And, the reflection of long-time Channel 2 (and for a while, Channel 11) anchor, John Pruitt. Stay tuned.

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