John Lewis, R.I.P.
John Lewis who represented Georgia’s 5th district in Congress from 1987 until he died this month at 80, was a force to be reckoned with. He was an icon, a statesman and a towering figure in the civil rights movement. Remarkably, he unfolded his nature—his very being, his gravitas—onto the world in service of justice.
Real courage and real leadership need to be celebrated. Why? Because they must be mustered in cruel and heartless times, in times bleak, oppressive and dangerous. For example, in 1965 when Lewis was just 25, he led a group of activists on a civil rights voting march across the now infamous bridge in Selma, Alabama. Their purpose: To take a message to Governor George C. Wallace who in 1963 had vowed “segregation forever.”
Ahead, Lewis and his fellow marchers could see heavily armed troopers—their faces hidden by gas masks—flanked by a mounted posse. Crowds ugly with hate menaced from the sidelines. The mood was tense, foreboding and ominous. Did the demonstrators stop? No. They moved forward. Archival film footage and photos show Lewis and his fellow travelers being beaten—Lewis’ skull was fractured—and tear-gassed while the crowd jeered and cheered from the side.
While Lewis was a consummate adherent to and advocate of the philosophy and discipline of non-violence, he was one of many bloodied, beaten with baseball bats, chains, lead pipes and stones and arrested and jailed over the years during demonstrations for voter and racial equality. Standing tall, their voices strong, thousands of other human beings, sharing a dream, have endured year after year.
In March of this year, John Lewis addressed a crowd atop the Selma bridge to mark the 55th commemoration of the day. “Speak up, speak out, get in the way,” said Lewis. “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”
Yes, we live in a nation that has evolved to take up the principle of inclusion. Still, John Lewis, born in 1940, had to contend throughout his life with people who, in many places, consider Black people, at best, to be second class citizens. If not entirely excluded, they are routinely and aggressively judged by different, harsher and unfair standards.
“Hate is a heavy burden,” said Lewis, and it is difficult to comprehend how the masses of haters we see on the television everyday aren’t sickened by their hatred of and cruelty toward those whose feelings, emotions, hopes and dreams are just like their own. By what standards of what is good and decent do the haters justify their malevolence? Racism, homophobia, sexism and all other cruelties and intimidations are rude, dishonest, criminal, immoral and ugly.
Most of us don’t have a nature such as those of John Lewis, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that can endure and extend itself so courageously so far into the world. But each of us has a duty to practice inclusiveness. Each of us can muster dignity and gravitas and extend this respect to others. Each of us can enact honor and generosity and treat one another accordingly. Each of us can commit to be loving, decent and compassionate and extend such courtesy and kindness inclusively. And each of us can pledge to be just and trustworthy, to harbor no hate and to practice no cruelty. Together then, each one of us can make personal virtue our stand, the unfolding of our nature (however strong it may be) our means and our conscience our guide.