John Lewis revisited

I’ve been lucky to meet John Lewis, one of my personal heroes. I think my knees were shaking. Anyway, here are two things that I’ve written about him on different occasions for a magazine that I used to work for.

Congressional Conscience (2005)

Since he was very young, John Lewis has dedicated himself to causing trouble for all the right reasons. It’s part of his engine, what he lives for. The struggle. The push. To uproot something, you have to dig, stir up dirt, commit.

“The other day I told about 300 interns from the House and Senate – Democrats and Republicans; I told them they must have the ability to get in the way,” says Lewis, 65, who is serving his ninth term in Congress. “I was inspired by Dr. King to get in trouble, get in the way. I told the interns how important it was to speak up, to get it out there.”

In other words, have guts. That’s never been an issue with Lewis, who was a nationally recognized leader in the civil rights movement before he was 23. He was jailed dozens of times, beaten countless others, including a vicious clubbing at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Lewis was leading a peaceful march for voting rights in March 1965 when he was almost beaten to death by white police officers. He was causing trouble.

“I honestly didn’t think John Lewis would survive the ’60s,” says political columnist Bill Shipp, who covered the civil rights movement. “He tops the list of the bravest men I’ve ever covered.”

One afternoon late in October 1985, 20 years after “Bloody Sunday” in Selma and a few days after Lewis won a second term as Atlanta City Councilman, he had lunch with Julian Bond, an old pal and fellow peaceful warrior from the movement, and state senator at the time.

“A very interesting meeting,” Lewis muses. “We’d just heard that Congressman [Wyche] Fowler was going to give up his House seat and run for Senate. We started talking about our future plans and it was downhill from there.”

That’s because each man announced to the other his intentions to run for Fowler’s seat as U.S. Representative of the 5th District in 1986. “It was a very quick lunch,” says Lewis, who upset the popular Bond in what was undoubtedly the most talked-about House race in the nation that year. “It was a very close, very difficult election, and we’d been friends for so long. Very tough. I never want to go through anything like that again.”

Lewis has breezed back into office eight times since and has earned a reputation as the conscience of the Congress. He’s a thorn in the side of what he calls “the most secretive presidential administration I’ve associated with,” campaigning to preserve individual civil liberties, which he says have eroded in the name of national security; advocating for peace, the oppressed, the millions of Americans who don’t have health coverage. Lewis isn’t young, but he plans to keep getting in the way.

“In a sense, I feel like I’ve been fighting for 45 years without stopping,” he says. “I don’t think there is any time to rest, or look back, because the struggle to create what I like to call a better society is not a struggle that lasts for a few years. It’s the struggle of a lifetime.”

The Lasting Influence of John Lewis (Jan. 2014)

John Lewis left the cotton fields of Alabama and became the conscience of a nation at war with itself. The scars still visible on his head are tangible reminders of an American hero’s courage, determination, defiance and grace, a hard life well lived, with intention.

Inspired as a teen by the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the radio broadcasts of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis felt compelled to fight, through nonviolent protest, for the cause of common humanity.

For his trouble, Lewis was beaten and injured on a number of occasions and arrested dozens of times, but he also helped plan the 1963 March on Washington, where he was a keynote speaker, and became a leader and symbol of a national struggle. Since 1986, he’s served as a U.S. Representative of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District with the same spirit and sense of responsibility he displayed during the Civil Rights Movement.

“I’ve tried to do my best for the people of my district, of Georgia and of our country,” Lewis says. “My goal always has been to leave society a little better than I found it, leave the world community a little more peaceful, to do what I can to inspire people to stand up for what is right and fair, and what is truth.”

Lewis pushed through Congress a proposal to designate the highway from Selma to Montgomery a National Historic Trail, to commemorate the 1965 voting rights march (when Lewis and about 600 peaceful protesters were beaten by Alabama state troopers). And in 1988, Lewis introduced legislation to build the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Congress finally approved it in 2003.

At 73, he remains a vital progressive force in Congress, still sharply focused on the cause of human rights.

“The most prevailing, serious issue we’re confronting today is comprehensive immigration reform,” he says. “We have 11 to 12 million people living in the shadows, and we must set them on the path to citizenship.”


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