Rep. John Lewis Leads Sit-In on House Floor. (AP Photo/File)
When asked about his legacy, how he’d like to be remembered, Congressman John Lewis said, “I hope they remember — if they want to remember — that I just wanted to help out.”
They’re such simple and humble words from a man considered a civil rights icon. And having your head clubbed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on “Bloody Sunday” seems so much more than “trying to help out.”
But Lewis speaks with authenticity — such authenticity that it hints at something wistful and intangible missing in our leadership, cultural and civic direction of today.
We want change. We want it now. Meanwhile so many of our leaders court power, influence, and recognition. Lewis sincerely wants to help.
From the conference room of The Philadelphia Tribune, a place whose 130-plus-year-history he acknowledges, Lewis recounts the ways in which he practiced and demonstrated peace: “We would be sitting at a lunch counter and someone would come up and spit on us, or come up and put a (cigarette) light out in our hair, or down our backs. We would just sit and wait to be served.”
There are no more John Lewises walking this earth. Biographers call him the last of the “Big 6” – a term applied to the leaders of the nation’s major civil rights and racial justice organizations, particularly during the hey day of the Civil Rights Movement.
They included: Lewis, of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee); Martin Luther King, Jr. of SCLC’s (Southern Christian Leadership Conference); James Farmer of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality); Roy Wilkins of the NAACP; Whitney Young of the National Urban League; and A. Phillip Randolph of the Negro American Labor Council and Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
In this March 7, 1965 file photo, state troopers use clubs against participants of a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala. At foreground right, John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, is beaten by a state trooper. The day, which became known as “Bloody Sunday,” is widely credited for galvanizing the nation’s leaders and ultimately yielded passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (AP Photo/File)
The National Museum of American History’s website recounts how these six planned the 1963 March on Washington: They “met at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York to announce a march demanding jobs and freedom. The group appointed Randolph the march director and (Bayard) Rustin his principal deputy. In just eight weeks, they proposed to hold the largest demonstration in American history.”
President Barack Obama, center, walks as he holds hands with Amelia Boynton Robinson, who was beaten during “Bloody Sunday,” as they and the first family and others including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga,, left of Obama, walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. for the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” a landmark event of the civil rights movement, Saturday, March 7, 2015. From front left are Marian Robinson, Sasha Obama. first lady Michelle Obama. Obama, Boynton and Adelaide Sanford, also in wheelchair. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
When Lewis speaks of the items and materials from which he still draws inspiration — photographs of Marian Anderson, Lena Horne, George Washington Carver and Paul Robeson — you realize that Lewis himself is a walking testament to the example we can all set.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes the stage with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., right, during a rally Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
He was in town earlier last week to accept the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center, and on this day is touting the strengths of the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, someone whose supposed warmth, I imply, does not always come across on the campaign trail.
“You ask the African-American members of Congress, especially the women — she can joke with you and cry with you and laugh with you,” Lewis offers.
In this photo taken Jan. 15, 2015, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., holds the new installment of his award-winning graphic novel on civil rights and nonviolent protest, on Capitol Hill in Washington. A comic book about Martin Luther King Jr. helped bring John Lewis into the civil rights movement. The longtime Democratic congressman from Georgia now hopes that graphic novels about his life and what his contemporaries endured to overcome racism will guide today’s protesters in search of justice. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
He appreciates little things, and offers a memory from his Civil Rights Movement days — the purchasing of a used suit for his jailing for the sit ins.
“I was a very poor student,” he recalled. “I had very little money, so I went to a men’s used clothing store in downtown Nashville, and bought a used suit, and a vest came with it. And the day we got arrested — Feb. 27, 1960 — 89 of them, Black and white students, there was a chain of us at Fisk University. We all went to jail, and I have a photograph of that arrest in my office in Washington. I looked sharp,” he adds with a smile. “I looked what you would call clean. I looked fresh, and I felt liberated. I felt like I had crossed over. It changed my life.”
The President hugs Rep. John Lewis after his introduction. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
History may never give way to another Big 6. We are fortunate to have encountered the one who is John Lewis.