Obituary: John Lewis

John Lewis
Image credit: Mobilus In Mobili / CC BY-SA (image cropped to fit).

Many aspire to leave this world a better place than they found it. Only a few – like civil rights icon and congressman John Lewis – succeed.

Lewis, who represented the people of the Fifth Congressional District of Georgia for more than 30 years, died of pancreatic cancer on July 17 at the age of 80. His friend and fellow civil rights activist, C.T. Vivian, also died that day, leaving a void in the fight for racial equality that will be difficult to fill.

The sacrifices he made in his life and career honored the generations that went before him and will benefit the ones that come after. Known as the “conscience of Congress,” Lewis served in the U.S. House of Representatives with grace and humility. First elected in 1986, he wrote and supported countless bills, including those that addressed gay rights and affordable healthcare for all Americans.  

Last month, as the nation paid tribute to the civil rights activist who encouraged people to get into “good trouble,” Lewis became the first Black lawmaker to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda.

Lewis’s deputy chief of staff, Jamila Thompson, spoke at his funeral. "People always ask us, 'What was it like to work for Congressman Lewis? What was he like up close? What was he like in real life?',” she said. “It is too difficult to explain, so my answer was always the same: 'He's just as you may imagine, but better.'"  

In addition to family, friends and associates, three former U.S. presidents attended the service to pay their respects to Lewis. A fourth, President Jimmy Carter, was unable to attend to due health concerns amid the pandemic, but prepared a statement that was read by the senior pastor of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, Rev. Raphael Warnock.

After reminding mourners of the common bond he and Lewis shared – serving the people of the great State of Georgia, the 39th president’s statement went on to say, “Throughout his remarkable life, John has been a blessing to countless people, and we are proud to be among those whose lives he has touched. While his achievements are enjoyed by all Americans, we Georgians know him as our neighbor, friend and representative. His enormous contributions will continue to be an inspiration for generations to come.”

President George W. Bush told those in attendance of how Lewis, when he was just 15, would preach sermons to the chickens at his family farm outside of Troy, Ala., before preaching to people. Bush admitted that his relationship with Lewis got off to a rocky start; Lewis, who believed the troubled election of 2000 had been decided unfairly by the courts, boycotted the inauguration. But, as time went by, the two men of dueling parties found common ground in the Voting Rights Act and a bill that created the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, a bill that Lewis spent 15 years trying to pass.

“John and I had our disagreements, of course,” Bush said. “ But in the America John Lewis fought for, and the America I believe in, differences of opinion are inevitable elements and evidence of democracy in action.”

When President Bill Clinton gave his remarks, he reminded mourners of the many times Lewis risked his life so that people could register to vote. Clinton also brought up memories of the tan trench coat and backpack Lewis wore on March 7, 1965 as he led more than 600 people across the Edmund Pettis Bridge toward the waiting ranks of Alabama State Troopers.

“He took a savage beating on more than one day, and he lost that backpack on Bloody Sunday. Nobody really knows what happened to it. Maybe someday someone will be stricken with conscience and give some of it back. But what it represented, never disappeared from John Lewis’ spirit,” Clinton said.

The president with whom Lewis had the closest bond, Barack Obama, was a fitting choice to deliver the eulogy. Lewis had repeatedly voiced his belief that the country would not elect a Black president in his lifetime. When Obama signed a program from his first swearing-in ceremony for Lewis in 2009, he wrote, “because of you, John.”

“This country is a constant work in progress,” Obama said in his remarks. “We were born with instructions: to form a more perfect union. Explicit in those words is the idea that we are imperfect; that what gives each new generation purpose is to take up the unfinished work of the last and carry it further than anyone might have thought possible.

“John Lewis – the first of the Freedom Riders, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, leader of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Member of Congress representing the people of this state and this district for 33 years, mentor to young people, including me at the time, until his final day on this Earth — he not only embraced that responsibility, but he made it his life’s work.”

Obama mentioned the many contributions Lewis made to the Civil Rights Movement, including his voter registration efforts in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964; how he was beaten by baseball bats, chains, lead pipes and stones as he disembarked from buses during the Freedom Riders’ journey; and how he had been arrested more than 40 times (some of them while in office) for issues relating not only to racial equality but also to gun control and human trafficking.

“What a gift John Lewis was,” the former president said. “We are all so lucky to have had him walk with us for a while and show us the way.”

Lewis himself had the last word. In an op-ed that he asked The New York Times to publish on the day of his funeral, he wrote, “Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life, I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”

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