I’ve been reading all the wonderful tributes to John Lewis over the last couple of days, how they chronicle the many ways he was a champion for justice.
Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma is a stand out for me. I remember watching the grainy black and white TV images of that confrontation, the state troopers charging the marchers, beating them, gassing them, some on horseback trampling them.
I was a 7-year-old kid, and barely understood what I was seeing. But the shock in the voices of the news commentators told you enough. I knew it was wrong. I could feel it was wrong. I came to believe you can always tell.
Years later, as a staff lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, I helped defend three of the people who helped organize the Selma to Montgomery March. The trial took place in the federal courthouse in Selma overlooking the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was about voting access. John Lewis was a presence in that case, not in a physical sense, but by association with the battle of conscience he fought there. (By the way, Jeff Sessions was the U.S. Attorney who brought that racist prosecution.)
We knew that we got to sit in that hearing room because he sat at lunch counters and on Greyhound buses.
I had a chance to meet him when I went to Washington in 1994 to head the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice. At one point, President Bill Clinton formed a Task Force to investigate and prosecute the series of arsons on Black churches in the South, and assigned me and my friend Jim Johnson to co-chair it.
When we went to the Hill to testify about our progress, John Lewis was on the panel, maybe even chaired the committee. Jim reminded me the other day that he was so moved by talking to Congressman Lewis about our work that he choked up reading his statement.
I think we both felt it was important for the Congressman to know that we appreciated the gravity of the work and its connection to his own. We knew that we got to sit in that hearing room because he sat at lunch counters and on Greyhound buses.
Most of the time, at congressional hearings, a congressman or senator asks questions and then fumbles through their notes or talks with staff while you answer. Congressman Lewis seemed to hang on and absorb our every word.
That’s the kind of impact John Lewis had on people, on me. A huge historical contribution and reputation for moral clarity from a diminutive and humble man. It’s hard to think of another American who did more to challenge America to face down her demons, to be her best self, and to respect the dignity in every living soul.
That’s the kind of impact John Lewis had on people, on me.
John Lewis was often called the conscience of the Congress. It’s especially sad to lose him now, when the country so craves moral leadership, but when so little of it comes from Washington.
I think of Congressman Lewis as one of those rare public figures who left us a clear example of how to behave, of how to make “good trouble,” as he would say, to push America closer to her ideals. As a fellow civil rights warrior, as a Black man, and as an American, I feel enormously grateful for that.
This segment aired on July 20, 2020.