‘What I thought was right’

In a meeting with a group of children and their parents, held more than nine years ago, a little girl asked Congressman John Lewis what he remembered about protesters' first attempt [Bloody Sunday] to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, Alabama. After describing his harrowing experience to the ten-year-old, one that almost cost him his life, the girl said, “you were a very brave man.” The conscience of the United States Congress responded to the ten-year-old in almost an embarrassed whisper, “ I just tried to do what I thought was right.” That humble exchange between John Lewis and little Paris Whitney took place in an Atlanta, Georgia church.

It was appropriate that the exchange took place in a church, where he found comfort, and in the presence of his and our future—young people. I was never so lucky as miss Whitney but I can only imagine, some nine or more years later, the now young woman realized last night, if not before, she has a one in a million story to tell. Congressman John Lewis died Friday night at the accomplished age of 80. Along with another Civil Rights giant, Reverend C.T. Vivian, who died earlier that day, Lewis was the last voice alive to speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the 1963 March on Washington.

Mr. Lewis commanded attention, even in crowds because of his courage, his empathy, and his work to make America equitable. Few men die without gratuitous shots being taken at their character, their morality, or their politics, Mr. Lewis’ critics are either quiet or nonexistent. Lewis literally led with his head and heart to the point of suffering a concussion under the clubs, boots, and brutality of racism. When I think of ‘Bloody Sunday’ I can vaguely remember grainy black and white images on my tv screen of spewing tear gas, men battered, women trampled, dresses torn,  prompting some to hold onto the hem of their dignity amid the chaos of uniformed and crisply dressed club-wielding Alabama State Troopers.

The shame of it is that it takes blood and suffering to change the hearts and minds of white America to the plight of black men, women, and children. That unholy display on the Edmund Pettus Bridge spurred the passage of the Voters Rights Act of 1965. Meanwhile, out of the spotlight, injustice, and racism boiled below the surface, systematically washing away the black blood that continued to be spilled on the streets and in the case of Dr. King, balconies of America.    

Congressman Lewis, despite his age, continued to evolve, he was a standard-bearer for the LGBT community well ahead of the crowd. Mixing both his desire for gun legislation and justice for the gay community, Mr. Lewis staged an old fashioned sit in on the literal floor of Congress. He wanted gun reform and empathy for the victims of a gay club in Orlando, Florida.  Other members of the Democratic Caucus were so willing to emulate past history that members, some fearing they may not be able to stand again, sat on the floor with Lewis. I have often wondered, as Mr. Lewis lay unconscious on a Selma street at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, did he think his contribution to the cause someday might put him in the company of the first black president of the United States. I think not, after all, Congressman John Lewis was known to whisper, “I just tried to do what I thought was right.”        

Vote in 2020, John Lewis dedicated his life to Change.