We live in a time devoid of heroes. The tinge of politics infects every aspect of our daily lives, from sports, to movies, to television — all of it. As such, there are precious few figures whom all Americans can revere not only for their good works but for what their success tells us about the promise of America.
Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who died yesterday, is such a man. As we mourn his passing, we should also celebrate his life, his courage, and the nation he served at the highest levels of power.
I grew up on stories about the 1963 March on Washington, to which my grandfather took my 13-year-old father. One of the men my dad saw speak that day was a 25-year-old John Lewis. Remarkably, he was already a leader of the civil rights movement. He had already been one of the first Freedom Riders; he had already put his body and freedom in harm’s way to secure liberty for all Americans.
Lewis was born in 1940 to sharecroppers in Alabama at a time black Americans who had been born into the horrible bondage of slavery still drew breath. As a child on trips to visit family in the more integrated but still unequal North, Lewis came to see that the conditions he knew in the South could change, that there was hope. Long before Bill Clinton became “the man from Hope,” or Barack Obama would promise “Hope and Change,” Lewis was a model of what America can and should become.
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By 1963, Lewis was the president of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. The key part of that legendary organization’s name is “non-violent.” But it is also misleading.
Lewis and his cohorts — blacks, whites, Jews, and others — did not commit acts of violence, but they were often on the receiving side of them. On the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday, he was famously beaten by police. But what he had been taught by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was that the greatest weapon against such racist violence was peace.
As many did in the 1960s, John Lewis could have chosen to dedicate his activism to violence, to burn buildings, loot stores, tear down statues. In retrospect, his belief that speaking the truth, taking the punches, and showing America by example the grace and goodness inherent in all people regardless of race seems hopelessly naïve. But, by God, it worked.
Throughout Lewis’s life, discriminatory laws were wiped from the books, and black Americans reached the highest heights of power. Congress, the Supreme Court, the presidency.
All of those achievements, as well as a nation in which racism is rejected, are the fruit of Lewis’s remarkable labor. Few men have ever been born into such discrimination and depravation only to overcome it and reshape a country they loved even though it treated them unfairly. America has many flaws, and maybe it always will, but Lewis showed us is it also the place where hard work, dedication, and passion can make any of us leaders and can make all of us free.
Today, I have a son about the age my dad was when he stood on the Washington Mall and took part in history, hearing words from King and Lewis and others that would shape his ideas and beliefs for the rest of his life. Today we talked about Lewis’s courage, bravery, love, and compassion.
I don’t think my son fully understands. His Brooklyn of diversity, where skin color is an afterthought to 10-year-olds, is John Lewis’s legacy, but also makes his fight almost incomprehensible to the more equal and free America he helped create for our children.
Shakespeare wrote, “Let us sit upon the ground. And tell sad stories of the death of kings.” Yes. Let us do that. We need heroes. We need the example of men and women who stood for something.
We need to know that America is still the place where dreams are not merely the metaphysical musings of the mind but can become the hard plastic of reality when dedication, labor, and love makes it so. America owes John Lewis profound gratitude, and it should also be proud to be the nation that produced such a powerful and heroic man.