John Lewis is gone.
It’s a sentence that’s weird to write and even harder to come to grips with. I unreasonably always imagined he would be here. When I read think pieces about what’s going on in politics, with a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote added for seasoning, I always think of Lewis. If King ever had an apprentice, it was him.
I think of the day I got a chance to meet him after he visited Benedict College last year. I was nervous before grabbing a selfie and getting a signature in my copy of the graphic novel of March, which tells the story of the civil rights movement through Lewis’ eyes. I told him how much his work meant to me and my family, and he thanked me. I realized that he’s probably heard it a million times (and probably just that day).
After his passing, I thought about his stature. He was around 5’6”, considerably smaller than me but still full of life as he spoke. I think about his stature only in reference to what he endured.
He made the decision to be a part of a non-violent movement. Unfortunately, the people he interacted with didn’t share the same philosophy. I think of this man being beaten, suffering various concussions and more than 45 arrests (with five of those arrests coming after being elected to Congress). The thought amazes me. Hearing the stories about him and then seeing him does something almost unfathomable: How do you humanize a hero?
When we think about 1963’s March on Washington, King gets the lion’s share of the attention in history books. But there was also a 23-year-old Lewis delivering lines that offer eerie meaning for what’s going on today:
“To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we have long said that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, “Be patient.” How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now.”
Historically, I look at the non-violent aspect of the civil rights movement and the lead-in to the Black Power movement and how things differed. I admire Malcolm X as much as Martin, but even Lewis was succeeded as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee by Stokely Carmichael, known for coining the term “Black Power.”
All we can do as Black people today is look back as these previous generations and imagine how we would measure up. Would I have been marching with Lewis? Would I have been raising a fist with the Panthers? Would I have been afraid?
One thing is for certain: Whether the approach is non-violent or militant, both approaches are incredibly brave, and especially so during the 1960s.
Lewis’ efforts paved the way for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act the following year. He was on the front lines of Bloody Sunday in Selma, where he received a beating from cops that left him with a permanent scar on his head.
The unfortunate thing is that so many years later, we still have voter suppression tactics that still impact black, brown, poor and minority voters. How can there be “We shall overcome” if we ain’t arrived yet?
Sadly, I feel heartbroken because this feels like a time where we need Lewis here the most as the “conscious of the Congress.” I hold my breath every time I hear Ruth Bader Ginsburg has to make a doctor’s visit. I then realize the hard truth: The baton is passed down to us now.
We are the ones that must now get into “good trouble.” John Lewis took many beatings to make this country better. My only regret is that it’s not as far along as we all hoped it would be.