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July 20, 2020

John Lewis said, "We will stand up for what is right, for what is fair, and what is just," and that's just what he did.

Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis died a few days ago. It was announced not long ago that he was suffering from pancreatic cancer and of course that was terrible news, but then I saw a photo of him on June 7 with Washington DC mayor Muriel Bowser standing on the Black Lives Matter mural. I felt such a rush of joy when I saw that photo.

I loved John Lewis, the man known as “the conscience of the Congress,” and I love that mural. I love how it goes across the street from curb to curb and stretches to the horizon line. I love the photos of people painting it. I love that it’s in our nation’s capital, and now in other cities too -- so declarative, so emphatic, the font so sharp and the message so clear: Black Lives Matter.

Yes, I live in a country where that phrase needs to be said, much less painted on the streets. But better said than not said — better painted than not painted. And I’m so glad John Lewis lived long enough to see it.

I’m glad he walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma this past March to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the day in 1965, known as “Bloody Sunday,” when he and other non-violent black protestors were beaten by white police. John Lewis nearly died of his injuries. His career and life afterward were dedicated to the cause of social justice for Black citizens (and other oppressed groups, too) in America.

"I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life,” he told CBS This Morning in June.

And he said, probably on more than one occasion, “You cannot be afraid to speak up and speak out for what you believe. You have to have courage, raw courage.”

The 2020 BLM protests — which he called “massive” in comparison with the demonstrations of his youth — are just the kind of “good trouble” he advocated as an activist who reached the highest levels of the U.S. government.

Of the 2020 protests he said, “There will be no turning back.” I’m glad he passed from this earth believing that, and I hope it’s true.

Here we are in July, where protests have now been going on daily, all over the country, for the seven weeks since George Floyd’s death. I can’t speak for everyone in America but I feel as scarred today as I felt in May when the video of that horrific death (which I still can’t watch) was shown all over TV and the Internet. Something shifted for me then and it hasn’t shifted back, and maybe it won’t.

I’ve heard that a lot of people can’t watch that video. Maybe we can’t blame ourselves for that, because in the summer of 2020 our minds are reeling and our emotions are raw — and how else should it be? Should we be taking all this in stride?

If I could write dispassionately about George Floyd and John Lewis and the protestors who are getting tear-gassed and beat up by police every night, why would I write about it at all? The point is that we're living through this, we're involved and we care, no matter who we are or where we live. These are our times. The pain is our pain, and even when we can't see past it, we recognize that the pain is part of the story.

Goodbye, American hero. You will be missed.

In 2016, John Lewis led a House sit-in on gun safety. The son of poor sharecroppers, Lewis said, "If someone had told me in 1963 that one day I would be in Congress, I would have said, 'You're crazy. You don't know what you're talking about.'”


My parents told me in the very beginning as a young child when I raised the question about segregation and racial discrimination, they told me not to get in the way, not to get in trouble, not to make any noise.”

“The civil rights movement was based on faith. Many of us who were participants in this movement saw our involvement as an extension of our faith. We saw ourselves doing the work of the Almighty. Segregation and racial discrimination were not in keeping with our faith, so we had to do something.”

“I thought I was going to die a few times. On the Freedom Ride in the year 1961, when I was beaten at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery, I thought I was going to die. On March 7th, 1965, when I was hit in the head with a night stick by a State Trooper at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, I thought I was going to die. I thought I saw death, but nothing can make me question the philosophy of nonviolence.”

“I say to people today, 'You must be prepared, if you believe in something. If you believe in something, you have to go for it. As individuals, we may not live to see the end.”

“We are one people with one family. We all live in the same house … and through books, through information, we must find a way to say to people that we must lay down the burden of hate. For hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”

- John Lewis, former U.S. congressman, civil rights leader and American icon

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