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What John Lewis Taught Me

The horse-drawn carriage transported Congressman John Lewis across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, one final time. The emotional images on my television this past weekend took me back to the humbling walk I took with him there on the 50th anniversary of the infamous Bloody Sunday attack. As a 25-year-old, Lewis had spilled his own blood so Black people would no longer be denied their constitutional right to vote in Selma and throughout the Jim Crow South. When we retraced his steps on that March day in 2015, the infamous black-and-white images of state troopers beating young, nonviolent protesters like Lewis played in my mind’s eye.

We gathered at Brown Chapel just like the original marchers did before proceeding to the bridge. When you begin to cross it, the bridge’s incline is so steep that all you can see is the sky. Only at its apex can you see where the police had stood waiting in 1965, batons in hand, the threat of violence palpable. I can only imagine the fear the marchers felt, many of them in their 20s, some even younger—the full force of the state amassed against them. And yet they continued to walk. Spending time with the congressman was always akin to walking through history, but when he reached the spot where he had almost lost his life, I felt a surreal connection to the past that will stay with me forever. I think everyone there that day was inspired to redouble their efforts in fighting for social justice. I certainly was.

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That was the power of John Lewis. He simultaneously reminded Americans of our history and challenged us to build on it to make the nation better, as I was lucky enough to experience firsthand.

I first got to know Congressman Lewis when the Smithsonian hired me to make real the centurylong dream of a museum on the National Mall dedicated to the history and culture of African Americans. Without his persistence, the museum might never have existed. Upon his election to office in 1986, one of the first bills Lewis introduced was legislation to create the museum. He continued to champion it, building enthusiasm for the project among his colleagues and constituents for 15 years, before the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act finally passed the House and Senate and was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

Every time I met with the congressman, I was struck by his patience and perseverance, qualities one would expect from someone who had been deeply involved in the struggle for civil rights since he was a teenager. Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s radio sermons and the movement to integrate Alabama’s schools, John Lewis gave his first sermon at Macedonia Baptist Church in Troy, Alabama, when he was just 15. When he later attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary, he tried to start a campus chapter of the NAACP, only to encounter resistance from the school’s leaders, who were reluctant to lose the white support they counted on. Lewis became adept at overcoming resistance throughout his life and shared wisdom about doing so with many people—myself included. As I struggled to build the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I cannot count the number of times I looked to his example of fighting the good fight every day.


The congressman’s calm and patient demeanor belied his fierce urgency to act, a characteristic that was evident during his days as an original Freedom Rider and chairperson for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. When Lewis was set to give a fiery speech at the 1963 March on Washington, the march leaders deemed the text too confrontational for the audiences at home and on the Mall and, more importantly, for the administration of President John F. Kennedy. Asked to tone down the rhetoric, the young John Lewis showed political savvy beyond his years. He understood the importance of showing a unified front for the historic event, and he had immense respect for organizer A. Philip Randolph. So, Lewis and other SNCC members agreed to edit some of the more incendiary parts of the speech. Despite the changes, the general consensus was that Lewis was a radical whom the New York Times called “the harshest of the speakers.” Throughout his career, he never stopped getting into good trouble, whether speaking truth to allies or calling out evil for what it was.

Every time I met with the congressman, it was a chance to listen and learn. I took him through the African American museum many times, first when it was under construction and later when it was finished, a testament to his vision and tenacity. We discussed one of my proudest acquisitions as a curator at the National Museum of American History: the stools and part of the lunch counter from the Greensboro Woolworth’s where four North Carolina A&T students sat to protest segregation in 1960. That protest had inspired Congressman Lewis as a student at Fisk University in Nashville to organize sit-ins at lunch counters and other segregated public spaces, as it did for other activists around the country.

Before meeting him, the picture I had of Lewis was someone with a steadfast faith in our common humanity, an unflagging optimism and a belief in the power of redemption. As I got to know him, it became obvious that my assessment was accurate. His uncommon grace led him to publicly forgive and even form a bond with Elwin Wilson, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan mob who had beaten Lewis and other Freedom Riders at the bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, in 1961. Lewis reasoned that when people “put down the mechanisms of division and separation to pick up the tools of reconciliation, they can help build a greater sense of community in our society, even between the most unlikely people.”

I think his instinct to look for the best of us is part of the reason the congressman organized annual bipartisan pilgrimages to the South with other members of Congress, an effort to bring to life some of the milestones of the civil rights movement. He knew how moving and transformative his firsthand recollections could be, especially in the settings where they took place. There was something almost sacred about retracing his steps in Selma and seeing the site of the Montgomery bus boycott, which was accompanied by his poignant account of what it was like to face down that kind of oppression. The loss of both Lewis and civil rights icon C.T. Vivian on the same weekend earlier this month reminds us how vital it is to preserve the oral histories of people who lived through the civil rights movement and other pivotal moments in American history.

On one of the congressman’s trips, in 2014, we went to Mississippi, where Myrlie Evers-Williams, Medgar Evers’ widow, showed us the house where her husband had been murdered and told us in detail about the night it happened. She spoke frankly and easily with us, likely because of Lewis’ reassuring presence. Because of his desire to bring people together, Evers-Williams and I developed a lasting friendship beginning with that visit.

The congressman then took us to Fannie Lou Hamer’s gravesite in Ruleville, Mississippi, and told stories along with Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton about how Hamer and others were beaten trying to register voters in the Mississippi Delta. As if to give us some respite from the somber tone, we then went to some blues joints in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where I sat with the congressman as he sang and tapped his toes to the blues. If you have seen the viral video of him dancing, you know he had a musical soul.

Perhaps the most touching moment for me was standing with Lewis in Money, Mississippi, where Emmett Till was brutally murdered. I had gotten to know Emmett’s mother, the late Mamie Till Mobley, several years earlier. She had talked about choosing to have an open casket at her son’s funeral so that everyone could see what had happened to him. Her wisdom and strength awes me to this day, and her example was a guiding light for me. Standing on that site with Lewis was very emotional. The congressman shared how he had marched in honor of Emmett. He helped ease the pain of that tragedy by reminding us how Emmett’s murder had been a rallying cry for justice and a turning point in the civil rights movement.

As we rode the buses back to Alabama, we stopped in a rest area, and Lewis, Congressman Steny Hoyer and I went into the restroom. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, racist comments were written on the walls. It was a stark reminder that the struggle was still far from over, and that laws can be changed more easily than deeply ingrained prejudices.


There are so many lessons Congressman Lewis left us that it is hard to know which to be most thankful for. His willingness to sacrifice himself to ensure that all receive the blessings of liberty, the way he espoused nonviolence and showed it to be an effective tool in the quest for justice, and his unwavering moral authority are but a few. But two parts of his legacy stand out to me: his lifelong fight for voting rights and the lesson that all of us can make a difference.

The year 2020 marks two voting-rights anniversaries: the centennial of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote, and the sesquicentennial of the 15th Amendment, ostensibly giving black men the right to vote after the Civil War.

Lewis spent much of his early life fighting to see that Black men and women were able to enjoy those constitutional rights despite the entrenched racism of Jim Crow that prevented them from doing so with poll taxes, literacy tests and violence. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, those rights have been slowly eroded over time by racial gerrymandering, voter ID laws, voter purges and virtual poll taxes, culminating in the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which eliminated the provision in the Voting Rights Act that required certain states to get federal pre-clearance before changing their voting rules. Since then, more than 1,600 polling places have closed, mostly in minority communities. And according to the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, in at least 10 voting-rights decisions since Shelby, courts have found intentional discrimination.

In 2019, a Republican political operative’s plan to dilute Black voting power in North Carolina was revealed. The operative had gerrymandered adjacent districts so precisely that he drew one through the campus of a historically black university, splitting the dorms almost equally between two different districts. That university was North Carolina A&T, the alma mater of the Greensboro Four, less than two miles from the Woolworth’s where they helped start a movement and show the way for Lewis and all the other civil rights activists who followed. Clearly the need to protect the right of all citizens to vote is as pronounced today as it was during the height of the civil rights era.

The other lasting impact Lewis has had is inspiring activism. So many people have followed his example and worked to have the nation live up to its democratic ideals of justice and equality. Many today are students like he was: the young activists of Parkland, Florida, whose advocacy was activated by the plague of gun violence; the countless young people of the Black Lives Matter movement who have continued to march and protest against injustice; the students in Fairfax County, Virginia, who petitioned their school board successfully to remove Robert E. Lee’s name and rechristen the school as John R. Lewis High School, even going so far as to make plans for a “good trouble” social justice committee.

Clearly, Lewis’ story resonates with young activists today, kindred spirits who know that youth is no impediment to changing the world. To the contrary, Generation Z uses social media to mobilize massive social movements for good. When the congressman went to Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C., in June, he was passing the baton to these new, fearless defenders of civil rights as surely as he had picked it up from leaders like Dr. King, A. Philip Randolph and Ella Baker. He was encouraging a whole new wave of good trouble to change the world for the better.

I think we can best honor Lewis by preserving and strengthening the voting rights that he fought for his entire life. The vote is the cornerstone of democracy. Extending it to all is paramount if we want a government that represents us. We should also embrace his hopefulness, his dedication to justice and his enduring humanity, which drove everything he did. Finally, his legacy reminds us that we, the people, have the power in this democratic republic, but we also have the obligation to stand up and speak up for the discarded, for the dispossessed, for the disenfranchised.


Any of us who had the pleasure of hearing Lewis speak knew that he was a master storyteller, someone who had the cadence of the preacher he had once planned to be and the moral authority gained from a lifetime of service to a righteous cause. When the National Museum of African American History and Culture broke ground in 2012, luminaries from former first lady Laura Bush to President Barack Obama spoke eloquently about the importance of the moment. But none held the audience rapt like Lewis did.

He said, “This is an end, but it is also a beginning. There is still much more work to do, and as we pursue this worthy goal sent to us down through the ages, we must not shrink. We must call on the courage of those who were in this struggle long before any of us were even born.” His beautiful rhetoric matched the moment almost as well as it does this one. But I must admit, what made my heart soar most at the time was the simple fact that he thanked me.

I first came to be aware of John Lewis when I was 10 years old, watching his March on Washington speech. He was a towering figure then, but he also proved to be the rare instance of someone whose stature only grew over time, a beacon of hope who consistently fought the good fight and whose sacrifices changed a nation. So, when this titan expressed gratitude for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I was at a loss for words. The only way I knew to reply was to thank him for allowing me and the nation to stand on his broad shoulders.

As I think back on the magnitude of his life, what he meant to me personally and professionally, and what he meant to the nation, I am still left with only this: Thank you, Congressman Lewis. How fortunate we all were for your strength to carry a nation on your shoulders. You reminded us to draw inspiration and guidance from the past to dream a world yet to be and challenged us to do the work to make that dream real.


Source: Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories

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