John Lewis lived a life of grace and humility
The civil rights icon led until he could lead no more; it’s up to us now
John Lewis deserves every single verbal bouquet tossed his way — civil rights icon, a giant for justice, the moral conscience of America. Sometimes we confer in death a battery of hyperbole that the departed could never live up to when alive. But let’s give John Lewis all the flowers.
He was a reminder that greatness can be worn lightly, if imperfectly, and that humility and grace are their own monumental traits.
I first met John Lewis in 1986 when I was a young political reporter working on a story about his Atlanta-area congressional race against Julian Bond, another titan of the civil rights movement. Lewis won that House campaign in an upset, and served three decades in Congress, which made him even more famous and sought-after — but no less a decent man. In my 34 years of knowing him, reporting on him, interacting with him, observing him and learning from him, I never saw him fundamentally change.
He remained the same self-proclaimed “workhorse” I had met in 1986, approachable to all who approached, generous with his story of struggle and perseverance, and willing to inspire in the moments when inspiration was needed most. Those moments came often. In the early years of our relationship, I would occasionally call his home on the weekend looking for comment or perspective on some story or another, and his wife Lillian would pick up and hand him the phone or tell me when to call back. I didn’t think much of that simple accessibility back then — it was just John Lewis — but I do now.
The older Lewis grew, the more significant he became, as others of his generation faded away, lost their influence or were just called home. On the day Lewis died, the Rev. C.T. Vivian, another civil rights luminary, also died. Until recently — Lewis announced he had pancreatic cancer just last winter — he had been active and visible, like a living museum piece that connected the not-so-long-ago past to the relevant present. I never imagined that one day he too would be gone; I imagined he would just keep raising his voice and guiding with his wisdom.
He was a beacon for his young admirers — like my actor son Darrell Britt-Gibson, who posted on his Instagram account: “The frontlines of the fight for equality will always have occupants, but maybe none as selfless, brave and impactful as John Lewis again. He gave every ounce of himself to this, and everything is owed to him.”
Two years ago, Lewis gave the commencement address at my alma mater, Boston University. As a member of the board of trustees, I was onstage, seated behind him, with a nice view looking out at the 7,000 graduates and their thousands and thousands of family and friends arrayed outdoors at Nickerson Field. I watched as students furiously recorded cellphone video and took pictures, giddy with joy, shouting and encouraging Lewis on. Standing ovation after standing ovation. You could see how truly mesmerized many of them were.
“The world is waiting for you,” Lewis told the graduates, “for your leadership, for your vision to help build an all-inclusive world community based on simple justice that values the dignity and the worth of every human being — what I like to call the Beloved Community.”
He went on.
“The most pressing challenge in our society today is defined by the methods we use to defend the dignity of humankind. But too often we are focused on accumulating the trappings of a comfortable life — the big house, designer clothes and a shiny new car.
“But I say to you today, if you want a better, more just society, you cannot wait for someone else to do it. Through your own efforts, through your own actions, through your own creativity and vision, you have to do it. You must make our world a better place.”
There is a reverence for Lewis among the young and idealistic, and among the young and fed-up alike. They understand that he put everything on the line. Got into “good trouble,” as he liked to say. The same good trouble that recently powered the protests in cities across America following the killing of George Floyd, which followed the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.
John Lewis was arrested 40 times in a six-year period during the 1960s. He was spit on during sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, beaten by mobs on the Freedom Rides through the South, attacked by state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and suffered a fractured skull. He spilled a lot of blood to make America better. And he did it all while a young man in his 20s, in that same time of life as those BU grads who were about to chase their dreams.
I’ve often wondered where courage comes from. How does it incubate and flourish inside you? It is not easy to be brave — whether heading into a burning building to rescue a child or speaking up at your workplace for what’s right. John Lewis had an abundance of bravery, and against the most virulent, violent racism. Unafraid, it seemed, of any battle — physical or intellectual.
He was fond of reminding people of his biography whenever there were threats against him — especially from political opponents and others who didn’t share his dreams.
“If they know anything about my history, and I’m not bragging,” he once told me, referring to Georgia Republicans who were going after him, “I have stood up to mayors and governors and even presidents. So, I’m not easily intimidated. I was looking at a picture a few days ago when I confronted a Klansman in a restaurant back in 1964.”
In aligning himself with Colin Kaepernick and other Black NFL players who chose to kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice, he recalled before the 2019 Super Bowl in Atlanta a 1962 kneel-in to protest the exclusion of Black youths from a recreation center in Cairo, Illinois. Lewis always had stories to tell, and precedents to point out.
He was a reminder of the sacrifice it took to move the country to this point, however unsatisfying this point is. On the National Mall in the nation’s capital sits the most important building highlighting African American progress in the world. It was John Lewis who helped lead the effort in Congress to create the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
On the morning of Sept. 24, 2016, at the museum’s opening ceremony, Lewis spoke movingly about its meaning:
“I can hear the distant voice of our ancestors whispering by the night fire, ‘Steal away, steal away home. We ain’t got time to stay here.’ Or, a big, bold choir shouting, ‘I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.’ All their voices — roaming for centuries — have finally found their home here, in this great monument to our pain, our suffering and our victory.”
That afternoon at another event, I saw Lewis at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, moseying around at a hospitality room that had been set up for speakers at the National Book Festival. Lewis was inspecting the buffet offerings, figuring out what to have for lunch. Later that evening, he was to give a talk about his graphic novel trilogy, March, an insider’s account of the civil rights movement for young readers. I had just finished interviewing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the festival’s main stage, and was grabbing some lunch myself.
I had not seen Lewis in a while, and briefly let him know what I was up to, now leading The Undefeated. But other than that, I left him alone. I knew what it was like for him. Everyone wanted a few minutes, a photo, a handshake. They wanted to stand next to John Lewis. I had observed this scene many times. Lewis always seemed effortlessly gracious about it all. And I enjoyed just sitting back, watching him brighten up lives. In this case, it was notable authors, family and friends of authors, festival volunteers.
He had a gentleness about him that belied his fierceness as a fighter for justice and equality. He led a life of consistency, vigorously pursuing a better America … until he no longer could.
John Lewis is gone. But we’re still here. It’s up to us now.