Representative John Lewis left a profound mark on everyone he encountered. The Woman’s National Democratic Club was no exception. He visited us on April 2, 2019 to present the “Democratic Woman of the Year Award” to Representative Maxine Waters of California. A civil rights leader, a preacher of nonviolence, and a US Representative from Georgia, he spent more than three decades in Congress defending the crucial gains he had helped achieve for people of color. His reputation as keeper of the 1960s flame defined his career in Congress. His death leaves his followers and admirers in profound sorrow.
Born to impoverished Alabama sharecroppers, Mr. Lewis was a high school student in 1955 when he heard broadcasts by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that drew him to activism. Inspired by Dr. King and Rosa Parks to get into “good trouble,” John Lewis worked tirelessly to end hatred and division. “I believe race is too heavy a burden to carry into the 21st century. It’s time to lay it down. We all came here in different ships, but now we’re all in the same boat.”
Ever the optimist, he said, “There are still forces in America that want to divide us along racial lines, religious lines, sex, class. But we’ve come too far; we’ve made too much progress to stop or to pull back. We must go forward. And I believe we will get there.” And: “Sometimes I hear people saying, ‘Nothing has changed.’ Come and walk in my shoes.” His deep love for all of humanity and his staunch belief in the inherent value of all living things was evident in his relentless pursuit of justice.
Congressman Lewis came to be known as the “conscience of the Congress.” He led a bipartisan delegation of House and Senate members on civil rights pilgrimages sponsored by The Faith and Politics Institute that brought him to Montgomery, Alabama and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial. Though he often talked about the beatings he endured during the civil rights movement he had no inclination to nurse old wounds. Congressman Lewis felt there was too much to do. He held a sit-in on the floor of the US House of Representatives for gun control legislation and consistently spoke out in support of Black and Indigenous People, LGBTQ people, immigrants, and the poor.
Time magazine included him in a 1975 list of “living saints” headed by Mother Teresa. The New Republic in 1996 called him “the last integrationist,” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Taylor Branch, said in an interview, that “John Lewis saw racism as a stubborn gate in freedom’s way, but if you take seriously the democratic purpose, whites as well as blacks benefit,” calling him “a rather lonely guardian of nonviolence.” It took a dozen years, but in 2003 he won authorization for construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall.
President Obama presented Congressman Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. Feeling a burning desire to teach young people the legacy of the civil rights movement, in 2013, Mr. Lewis began a trilogy in comic book form called “March.”
“I have been in some kind of fight—for freedom, equality, basic human rights—for nearly my entire life,” he said in a statement. “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now,” he said upon announcing his struggle with pancreatic cancer. His last public appearance came at Black Lives Matter Plaza with DC Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on June 7, two days after taping a virtual town hall online with former president Barack Obama. The entire nation mourns the passing of a civil rights icon.
President, Woman’s National Democratic Club
July 20, 2020