The Civil Rights hero, a legendary journalist, and, then, well, there’s me and a tie

People mourn John Lewis, congressman representing the state of Georgia, near a mural of Lewis in Atlanta, Georgia, the United States, July 19, 2020. (Photo by Alan Chin/Xinhua)

I asked John Pruitt, my friend and former colleague at Channel 2 WSB-TV, if he would offer his observation of John Lewis. Pruitt and I worked together at Channel 2 from 1999 until he retired in 2010. For those of you from outside of Atlanta, allow me to introduce him.

John was into his fourth decade covering news in Atlanta and beyond when I joined Channel 2. I found out quickly what a privilege it was to work with him and I learned so much from him over our ten years together. John represented all of the best qualities to which any journalist should aspire.

He has always loved history because it defined how we got to where we are now. 

He’s extremely observant and deeply interested in the full context of the facts; the who, what, when and where of a news story’s arc.

He is dogged in his pursuit of the truth to the story while maintaining the humanity of the people involved in the story he was covering. 

As an anchor, John provided leadership both in the newsroom and from the anchor desk. He listened to and respected the opinions of others and reserved his observations or opinions for last. And, he was all about maintaining balance and fairness of the telling of the news stories.  

When the sh*t hit the fan and news was breaking, John was the proverbial calm inside the storm. He had the experience and vision to see beyond the chaos of the moment, to connect dots others were not anticipating or seeing and to make us all feel safe in knowing John was on the story. 

He was at his best when it came to political coverage…John is THE man with deep political knowledge in this town. So much so that Channel 2 continues to call on his insight and political wisdom to this day. You will be seeing him over the ramp up to the November elections I can assure you.

And, of course, John’s decades of experience in covering the Civil Rights Movement makes him Channel 2’s go-to expert during times like Lewis’ passing. When Lewis passed, John was on the air with his words of reflection on the life of Lewis.

For all of those reasons, I’m appreciative that John shared his observation and feelings about John Robert Lewis. 

I’ve covered so many public figures over my reporting career, but John Lewis was truly unique.  When he came to Atlanta as head of SNCC [Students Nonviolent Coordination Committee] in the late 60’s, Lewis was already a civil rights legend.  Having survived Bloody Sunday, the Freedom Rides, and a series of arrests and beatings, he was renowned for his courage and leadership.  Time Magazine referred to him as a “living saint”.

Yet, despite his fame, John Lewis was one of the most humble people I ever met.  He was gentle, respectful, soft spoken, and self-effacing. Oh, he could be in your face when crusading for his causes on the floor of the house or walking at the head of a group of civil rights marchers. On those occasions he could be downright bombastic. But his power to persuade through his quiet sincerity and humility, his unquestioned dedication to lead the nation to his life-long goal of the beloved community, could and did move mountains. Those qualities made him a figure of deep respect for people on both sides of our partisan divide.

It was a privilege to cover John Lewis over the course of his long political career.  He made a difference in so many lives right up to the end. And the legacy he leaves will continue to light the way.

Across the displays of clothing stood a Civil Rights legend

More than a few years back, Julie and I were shopping in a Perimeter Mall department store on the Fourth of July. She was off looking for something special while I whiling away the time in the men’s section. I glanced up from whatever clothing in which I was pretending interest and as I scanned around the aisles and displays of men’s clothing there, looking at ties, was Congressman John Lewis. I could only see him from the shoulders up, but I would recognize his profile anywhere. And, he was all alone. 

I felt nervous excitement and the growing need most of us feel in the presence of the famous…to, well, go over and introduce myself. I hesitated for a moment, questioning whether or not it would be rude or disrespectful of his moment alone to do a little uninterrupted shopping. 

And then I thought, this is John Lewis, a Civil Rights legend. He’s right there! In the end, I just could not pass up the opportunity to meet him. I didn’t know what I would say but I would figure it out. 

I made my way over to him as he continued to browse through the ties. I could see that he was dressed in a suit. I must have caught his eye because he looked up, saw me coming and he smiled. I started talking as I approached with my hand outstretched to his, “Congressman Lewis, I am so sorry to interrupt your shopping and I hope that I’m not bothering you too much,” as we shook hands. “My name is Steve Riley and I work for Channel 2.” 

“It is so nice to meet you, Steve,” he said. “And, it’s no bother at all. I’m just in between events and thought I’d find me a new tie.” He grinned again.

“What is it that you do for Channel 2?” he asked. I told him and he acknowledged, “That is a great TV station. You must really enjoy working there.” I told him that I did and then said the only thing I knew to say.

“I want you to know how much I admire you for all that you have done to make Atlanta and our country a better place,” I said. 

“Well, thank you, Steve. I appreciate that. I have certainly had a blessed and rewarding life. But we have much further to go you know.” 

A young man came up, politely said hello to me and told the congressman that it was time for them to go. 

“Well, I gotta get going,” he said looking at me. “I’m am so glad to meet you, Steve. Have a great holiday.” 

I thanked him for his time, we shook hands and off they went. 

And that was that. My personal moment with John Lewis in the men’s clothing department at the mall. And here’s my take on it years later and in light of his passing.

First, did you catch how quickly he welcomed me, how he said and then repeatedly used my name?

He saw me.

Right at that moment, when he was focused on a new tie, he moved so graciously into seeing me, a human being, and taking the opportunity to make a real human connection. He seized the moment to be real. To get real. To make a real connection. And, to get in one more motion toward justice, a campaign that he has been waging for his entire life. 

And he left me a bigger admirer than I was before because he let me see him, too. 

Today, I had another thought about this chance meeting at a clothing store in a shopping mall…in Georgia. Fifty years ago he would not have been welcomed to shop in a clothing store in Atlanta, or anywhere else in the South. And here he was, in Nordstrom’s. I thought, man, what he has seen, what he has endured to get us to the point where this common little thing, looking at a tie, his hands on the material, thinking maybe this one or that one, a Black man with the freedom to choose. His sit-ins and marches and protests and legislative work made it possible for him, and all people, to enjoy the freedom to shop for a tie.

And I am so thankful, for him, what he did with his life and what his life did for this country. 

I thought of this meeting during his funeral service when his niece remarked that “Uncle Robert was always camera-ready.” 

That is true if you look at how he was dressed in a coat and tie in almost every photo. He dignified a protest, whether it was a march or a sit-in, by dressing as if he was in church. I think that he wanted observers, and especially white observers who did not want him there in the first place, to see, by his dress, that he was a serious man involved in serious and important work.

I would like to add that he was also always “people” ready because it was in knowing people that he seemed to receive his greatest joy.

4 thoughts on “The Civil Rights hero, a legendary journalist, and, then, well, there’s me and a tie

  1. What a special moment and wonderful retelling – I can tell what an imprint this had on you based on your seemingly perfect memory of it.

  2. Thanks Sarah. When I first started thinking about that meeting, I didn’t recall the details, but as I wrote about it, they came washing back. Sometimes, you have to get into your head and trace those memories down the like a bloodhound to help crystalize the details.

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