Lewis knew fights once won might have to be fought again. His legacy was kindness, patience and persistence: Don’t be disappointed. Don’t give up on anyone.
In Washington, there are two sentences that are said as if they were one sentence, said in one breath: “So and so died? Who’s replacing him?” No one will ask that about Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. He is irreplaceable.
I first met John Lewis when I was only 23 years old and serving as the student mobilization director for the 20th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, a life-changing experience for me. Lewis is the last of the civil rights icons, known as The Big Six, the activists who founded our modern civil rights movement: King, James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young. There can be no doubt that the lives of every African American — indeed, of every American — in this country changed for the better because of the sacrifices of these men.
I studied the history of the march when I worked on that anniversary, and I admired how Lewis would not allow his remarks to be reviewed or changed because he was committed to speaking from his heart, the way, I was to find, that he always did. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, John Lewis stayed in the fight when so many others went on to do other things. It was clear to me, even as a 23-year-old, that John Lewis saw so much still worth fighting for. And he wanted to bring the next generation of warriors along because he knew, better than others did, that fights once won are not necessarily over. Many of them need to be fought again.
‘Good trouble’ to correct injustice
I’m so glad term limits didn’t apply to John Lewis. For 17 terms — three decades — new and old members of Congress had the benefit of his leadership and his great legacy, and so did those who served on their congressional staffs. He was never one who set himself on a pedestal, always accessible to young people. I remember as a young staffer frequently finding my way to Congressman Lewis’ office where there was always a bowl of Georgia peanuts available for a hungry visitor, and ice cold Coca-Cola to slake my thirst when he motioned me into his office for a chat.
He wanted to stay in touch with what the young people were doing, and mentor those he thought had promise. He kept reminding us to get into “good trouble” to complete the work of his generation. He never left that work for others to do; he was always willing to do it himself. I knew as a young organizer that if I could get John Lewis to support my cause, I had gotten a giant and I’d get more attention. And he was always ready to place a phone call, or record a message for a candidate, understanding that movements must be broad and deep if they are to succeed.
Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., told journalist Jonathan T. Capehart that she was honored to serve with Lewis: “I get to talk to him. I watch him as he interacts with other people and he’s just a real role model for a different kind of leadership. I love how he talks about getting into ‘good trouble.’ He can say things and be very clear about it and very strong about it, but not mean about it. And I think in a time like this, people crave that. I do. ”
What he meant by “good trouble” was standing up to injustice in a way that drew attention, and created change. In a note to his 16-year-old self, written in 2017, Lewis told that boy, “I say to you now, when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to continue to speak up, to speak out.”
His leadership was forged by marches in our streets, baptized with his own blood, tempered by training in nonviolent resistance. On “Bloody Sunday,” in March 1965, at the tender age of 25, he was at the head of that demonstration because “big shot preachers” had opted out of a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to petition for voting rights
Lewis had worked for months to register minorities to vote. But his newly registered voters were turned away because they were told that even the college educated had failed their literacy tests, because they couldn’t correctly guess the number of bubbles on a bar of soap or even the number of jelly beans in a jar.
Standing at the head of the march, you can see in his young face that he was a man of immense moral and physical courage. The footage of people being beaten that Bloody Sunday on that bridge, named after a Confederate general and a leader in the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, provoked the public outrage that propelled the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The sacrifice of John Lewis, hospitalized for a skull fracture caused by a policeman who cracked his head with a billy club, along with many others who were beaten on that bridge won the vote millions of Americans of many races, ethnicities and languages should have had in the first place.
Nearly 50 years later, John Lewis lived to see the Supreme Court strike down the most important provision of the Voting Rights Act. Following the court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, 23 states enacted voter suppression laws, ordered voter purges, stiffened ID requirements, closed polls in minority areas and engaged in voter intimidation.
I’m grateful John got to see the passage of a revised Voter Rights Act in 2019. He held the right to vote as literally sacred. The legislation passed the House with but one Republican vote, and now languishes in the Senate where Republican leader Mitch McConnell says he will not allow a vote on it.
Learn and preserve: Are we ready for an America without civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis?
When few Republicans showed up for the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma, Lewis said, “We cannot become disappointed … We will not give up on anyone.” That is the legacy John Lewis leaves. Despite the fact that he nearly lost his life fighting for voting rights, he remained patient and kind toward political opponents.
On the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act last August, Lewis said, “We must confront the fact that there are forces in our society that want to reverse that democratic legacy. They do not want to be subject to the will of the people. … They want to eliminate checks and balances. … All we have to do is say no to this tyranny and begin to stand up and speak out. … In the days when leaders fail us, when the work of many in government is division and separation … the onus falls on each and every one of us to do what is right.”
The voice of a prophet is silenced
Lewis was the embodiment of nonviolence in America. His voice was that of a prophet. His words on the Voting Rights Act of 2019 echoed those he spoke during the March on Washington in 1963, when he was but 23 years old: “I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete.”
The keystone on which this nation was built — equality — is under challenge as never before in our history. “We are involved in a serious social revolution,” he said.
I saw that same ferocity in June of 2016 when John Lewis led the Democratic congressional delegation in a sit-in on the floor of Congress demanding attention on the issue of gun control after the shooting in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Like the veteran organizer he is, he caught the Republicans off guard by his swift action and, even at his advanced age, he was the last speaker before the sit-in disbanded.
In the tradition young activists are raised in, Rep. Lewis was always looking for a way to serve. He was a featured guest at the premier of the movie “Selma” in 2014, and I will never forget being at the after party with him. Although there were plenty of people who wanted to take a selfie with him, wanted to honor him, he made a beeline for the table where I was sitting with Eleanor Holmes Norton and Sidney Poitier. Instead of strutting around in this moment of glory, he asked everyone at the table what he could get them to eat and brought back big plates of food for everyone at the table.
The last time I saw him was just to wave at him from across a crowded street. He had lost a lot of weight but, despite his failing health, he made his way to Pennsylvania Avenue to watch Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser have BLACK LIVES MATTER painted on the street in front of the White House. More good trouble, and he wouldn’t miss that. As he said in the just released “Good Trouble” documentary about his life, “As long as I have breath in my body, I will do what I can.”
There was beauty inside of him, and he had an internal compass that was always pointing toward justice. He was one of God’s fighters, a set of warriors placed on this earth to remind us that justice must roll down like water. John Lewis was one of those warriors who could push the rock in the water.
We should resolve that the passing of this good man shall not be in vain. We should demand, for the sake of what is right, in his memory, that the Voting Rights Act of 2019 be taken up by the Senate. And it would be a great thing, and a fitting tribute, to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge the John Lewis Bridge.
Donna Brazile, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is a Fox News contributor, an at-large automatic delegate to the 2020 Democratic convention, former interim chair of the Democratic National Committee and author of “Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns that Put Donald Trump in the White House.” Follow her on Twitter: @donnabrazile
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