How to live and How to die
A reflection on the decent and eternal life of Representative John Lewis
by Jesse Jackson Jr.
John Lewis lived a life of courage and decency that we have not seen in modern man. I decided to write this article based on a lifetime of observation. I was born March 11, 1965 in the middle of the three Selma to Montgomery marches, held in 1965, along the 54 mile highway from Selma Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery Alabama. On Sunday, March 7, a nonviolent peaceful march led by Lewis was met by state troopers, who had everything but non-violence on their minds as they sought to enforce the Alabama policy of “Law and Order,” at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. My father was a student at Chicago Theological Seminary when he joined the second March. He called Greenville South Carolina and found out that I had just been born, and he was so overwhelmed by the history of the moment that he wanted to name me Selma. My mothers better judgment prevailed, my father and my oldest sister to this day still call me Selma. My classmate Cameron Moody from college still calls me Selma. When I served in Congress with John Lewis for 17 years he too called me Selma.
Between my birth and my election to Congress I saw Representative Lewis who I affectionately call “Uncle John” at various conventions, Congressional Black Caucus weekends, protests, social events with my father, always with a reverence and respect of a young respectable man who was not only in the presence of greatness, but in the presence of divinity, a holy figure complete with halo.
My election to Congress in 1995 only added the term colleague and friend, a line only crossed by profession, for he was divinity. He wasn’t a minister, but he was. He wasn’t a preacher, but he could, he wasn’t a politician but he served. The English language doesn’t have a term that can describe the spirit of John Lewis. I think ultimately the American people will erect statues, monuments, name buildings, rooms and programs after him. For we the living want to multiply and expand his spirit energy to future generations. Jim Clyburn, the majority whip from South Carolina, said it best “John Lewis lived the life of a sermon.” I agree. The living are going to write his gospel and testament. So I want to offer my thoughts in the deification of his spirit.
First John, ( I like that term First John), had a sense of himself in history. He was unique in his “knowing of the role he played” in changing the course of human events. President Lyndon Baines Johnson in his special message to Congress in 1965 titled, “And We Shall Overcome,” said, “At times history and fate meet at a single time, in a single place, to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma Alabama.”
The former senator and segregationist and then President of the United States was referring to the event of John Lewis and the marchers non-violent confrontation with Alabama State Police on the other side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The consciousness of mankind had been challenged by the fact that the protestors did not return hate for hate but returned the hate of the officers with love and compassion, an authentic christian moment. It was a strange moment, in that we had not seen, nor heard, nor witnessed the incomplete ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, tragically interrupted by crucifixion, taken to its logical conclusion, but we could only imagine that this was his intention. It was an experiment in faith and we all observed it. The brutality was such that the public opinion of planet earth was formed against the behemoth, the goliath, of American hatred toward people of color and it required a global reassessment and an identification with David. John Lewis changed Johnson. Johnson had earlier signed the Civil Rights act of 1964, would sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965, due to Lewis efforts, and would sign Fair Housing Legislation in 1968, the crux of the Civil rights era and its accomplishment in law. From segregationist to advocate for human and civil rights, Jesse Jackson would later call Johnson the greatest President of the 20th century. Lewis changed Johnson!
Secondly, Lewis’ legislative accomplishments, in addition to the words that he spoke, and entered into the Congressional Record, will stand the test of the nation’s most comprehensive and complete documenting of the events that moved his spirit to action. There is no record more eternal in the life of this nation than the Congressional Record and John Lewis was a master of it. His spirit is contained in his words and action. A perfect say:do ratio. He bragged about being arrested for “Good Trouble” more than 40 times before his election to congress, and 4 more times once elected. He intended to get our attention.
Thirdly, Lewis’ graphic novel written and illustrated for K through 12 and beyond tells the story of civil and human rights available for the youngest to the oldest of our citizens. For Lewis it was really more than struggle, or commitment to the moment, Lewis was committed to the narrative and the movement of the spirit of his life. There was no higher priority than the establishment of a beloved community, “on earth as it is in heaven.” The beloved community that he and Martin Luther King Jr. gave the last full measure of their devotion too. In the graphic novel he wrote so that all Americans, indeed all of us could recognize our role and responsibility to the “World House ” we all live in. Lewis insured that we would be present at the events that led to “a new American Founding,” forever. A new reality for all of us.
Fourth, his lying in state at the Alabama State Capitol, the Georgia State Capitol, the United States Capitol speaks to the nation’s highest honor and the nation’s debt of gratitude to Lewis for he had lived a life of “Good Trouble” and conducted his life as a sermon of justice and mercy and hope. Good trouble, a trouble that troubled the waters of conscience and brought about results by changing the minds of his political opposition and ultimately an opposition that joined him in passing legislation to improve the “Soul of America.” He believed that deeply within every person existed the capacity to change, for Lewis, even the most staunch segregationist could enter a community of love and mutual respect. Lewis understood that generations of Southern white Americans and many liberal northerners had been told a lie and they needed to confront their truth and that they would act out until they came to terms with a new truth. What Lewis controlled was the response to the reaction, it would be loving and nonviolent. His capacity to endure suffering made him great.
Fifth, John Lewis was a Founding Father of this Democracy. It is hard to imagine that James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and the other architects, had not added the fundamental affirmative right to vote to the Constitution of the United States. The task before Lewis wasn’t just consistently renewing and extending the Voting Rights of 1965, but the elevation of the affirmative right to vote to the Constitution itself, an oversight at the Founding. How can we be a democracy when the right to vote is protected by 50 different states and so called separate and unequal states rights in voting and not the constitution? Such an amendment would be more important to Lewis and the future of a free people in a representative government than any statue or memorial.
And lastly his courage surpassed our understanding. He even confronted his own mortality and decided to seize the moment by writing and immortalizing his final thoughts to us in a New York Times op Ed read by the voice of God, Morgan Freeman and he insured, even in death, John Lewis planned to be with us forever in spirit and he will be just that.
I think because of John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr., and yes Jesus of Nazareth to whom they followed, love is going to have the final word of our existence. It is painful to get there. There are competing philosophies and theologies on this point but King and Lewis were from a primitive authentic Christian understanding. Robert E Lee High School in Virginia is now the John Robert Lewis High School. Edmund Pettus Bridge named after a Ku Klux Klan man will be renamed John Robert Lewis. Fisk University is naming it’s social justice institute after John Robert Lewis. Streets will be named after John Robert Lewis, from Sea to Shining Sea. John Robert Lewis and his spirit will have the final say on defeating treason and the confederacy, because of the way he lived.
John Lewis showed us how to live, he showed us with dignity how to die, and he showed us the power of the resurrection of the human spirit and the divine entitlement of freedom.