Even death could not silence the wise, courageous and righteous voice of the great John Lewis, a hero who changed the course of history for the better by demanding America live up its ideals of justice and equality for all.
At his funeral service Thursday in Atlanta, the Georgia Democratic congressman and giant of the civil rights movement was remembered and deservedly praised by former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, along with many others blessed to have known him.
But Lewis himself spoke to us again one last time in an op-ed, beautifully written shortly before his death and published Thursday by The New York Times.
“While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me,” Lewis wrote in a message to us all to continue his life’s work. “You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.”
And Lewis, who as a young man was brutally beaten and nearly murdered as he marched to give Black Americans the right to vote — one of many rights long denied to us by the evil of racism — added in his op-ed: “Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.”
Ever the evangelist for voting rights, Lewis used his last published words to remind us that the hard-fought right to vote is something we should never take for granted and never give up. By voting, we not only help ourselves, but honor his memory and his life’s work.
John Lewis’ op-ed clearly and compellingly reinforces the lessons that guided his life — both personally and politically: nonviolence, racial equality, voting rights and justice for all.
I was fortunate and honored to have known Lewis and many other heroic leaders of the early civil rights movement. These great men and women risked their lives so that I and generations of Black Americans could have opportunities they could only dream of growing up.
He was a nonviolent warrior, answering hatred with love and ultimately triumphing before he left us all too soon.
I was especially inspired by Lewis' spirituality and deep belief in the power of love to overcome our many challenges. He could have easily met the racism, hatred and violence directed against him by responding in kind. But he was better than that. He never lost faith in the power of love to overcome some of life’s most enduring challenges.
His giant heart had room for many views; indeed, to borrow a phrase from Republican President Ronald Reagan, with whom he frequently clashed, Lewis believed that “the divergence of views is one of our strengths.”
On the passing of another Republican colleague, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Lewis said: "John McCain was a warrior for peace. He will be deeply missed by people all around the world."
My dear friend, mentor and former colleague Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton — who represents Washington, D.C. in the House of Representatives but is still denied a vote in Congress – said after Lewis passed: “John was, first and foremost, a leader of nonviolent resistance and love, that even when he came to Congress and fought the Republicans, he was always able to walk to the other side.”
These days, walking to the other side is increasingly tough. It’s been made more difficult by those who seek to divide us and refuse to believe we can walk together as one America. But John Lewis never walked away from his opponents. He walked towards them, knowing that love always wins.
Lewis’ commitment to nonviolence and his resilience and mentorship gave birth to the most recent protests after the brutal murder of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, by a Minneapolis police officer. Floyd’s tragic and horrific killing on Memorial Day as he lay on the ground in handcuffs, not resisting police, has sparked a great awakening in America that the cancer of racism still sadly afflicts our nation.
In his New York Times op-ed, Lewis expressed pride in the recent Black Lives Matter protests and the giant mural painted on a street in Washington.
Lewis wrote in the op-ed that Emmet Till — a 14-year-old Black boy who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after he was accused of flirting with a white woman — was his George Floyd.
Emmett Till “was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time,” Lewis wrote. “I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me. In those days, fear constrained us like an imaginary prison, and troubling thoughts of potential brutality committed for no understandable reason were the bars.”
As President Obama — whose election as our first Black president was made possible by Lewis and other civil rights pioneers — said in his eulogy Thursday: “John Lewis believed in us, even when we did not believe in ourselves.”
Indeed, John Lewis believed in us to the end.
Nonviolence was always Lewis’ first choice. He preached and practiced nonviolence as a means to a moral end. Proud when political change resulted from nonviolent protests, he was equally repulsed by violent protests. He was a nonviolent warrior, answering hatred with love and ultimately triumphing before he left us all too soon.
The great man who devoted his life to serving others left us with these words in his op-ed: “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.”
God bless you, John Lewis.