I wanted to share my three John Lewis stories.
My first was a day that was an accident on the scale of just how memorable I expected it to be. I had long awaited the grand opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. I had heard that Public Enemy and The Roots were performing a free concert to celebrate and so I went into town early that day to see what else was going on and get a good spot for a fun show and MAYBE if I was lucky, be one of the first people to step inside.
When I arrived there were more people than I could possibly imagine. Honest to God I thought there were more people downtown than I saw at the inauguration. (But that’s a joke that keeps giving.) It wasn’t until I had hopped over a hill to get a view of what everyone was looking at that I realized there would be a few more people present than Public Enemy & The Roots.
That day I heard performances from Stevie Wonder and Patti LaBelle, speeches from Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama, and the late Congressman John Lewis. That was all a surprise to me.
The love and excitement of everyone present when they announced “Congressman John Lewis” shouts of “OMG!” & “We love you John.” We all felt that what we were present for was a gift and a privilege. That day I heard what I would argue is one of the greatest speeches of the Obama presidency. A speech that began with Obama acknowledging that his hero was present. His hero John Lewis.
John signed the legislation with President George W. Bush to finally build the museum on The Mall for all the world to see and visit. In his remarks, John stated “This museum is a testament to the dignity of the dispossessed in every corner of the globe who yearn for freedom. It is a song to the scholars and scribes, scientist and teachers, to the revolutionaries and the voices of protest, to the ministers and the authors of peace, it is a story of life, the story of our lives, wrapped up in the beautiful golden crown of grace….As these doors open, it is my hope that each and every person who visits this beautiful museum, will walk away deeply inspired, filled with greater respect for the dignity and the worth of every human being, and a stronger commitment to the ideal of justice, equality, and true democracy.”
That day I was lucky enough to find a family with an extra ticket. I walked into those doors and left fulfilling John Lewis’ hopes. That day, and the black joy that I experienced from everyone around me, deeply transformed me. The stories inside both broke and inspired me to be all the more sincere in my steps towards justice and equality for every person.
I consider that day of opportunities and privileges one of the single greatest and most inspiring days of my life. I still cannot believe I was there for that. That damn tiny little button that says “I was there!” is one of my most prized possessions.
The second story also was a surprise. It was October of 2016 and I had just finished participating in a 110 mile march from Charlottesville, Va to the White House to confront white supremacy. It began after the events of August 12th where white supremacists and neo-nazis violently clashed with counter-protestors and drove a car into a crowd killing Heather Heyer. It was a march that very spiritually felt tethered to the work of John Lewis and many more before us. After meeting DACA recipients on the march, I had gone back into the city to join a protest standing up for the rights of immigrants that was acting sit-ins in particular congress members offices. Several people had planned on being arrested and we were there to disrupt the peace and prolong their arrest for as long as possible. When we were told we had to be quiet or be arrested for disturbing the peace we all started humming. After the protesters were arrested, I decided to walk around the Congressional offices. I walked past John Lewis’ office and had a bit of a panic. Like, holy smokes, the guy works right there.
Being the nuisance that I am, I looked up his office number, called and asked if it was appropriate for people to come and say hello to the Congressman. They replied with enthusiasm, “Of course! People do it all the time, come on inside!” I walked into his office so incredibly nervous, only to discover that he had left in the time it had taken me to be brave enough to walk in. They were kind enough to offer me an Atlanta Coca-Cola and say he’d be back for a vote next week.
While there I noticed that there was a large stack of his “March” trilogy that people had left to be signed. So I asked how could I go about getting my copy signed. They said “Just bring it on up and we’ll make sure he signs it.” So I came back the next week, wearing a full suit and tie. He wasn’t there then either. I was a little bummed because I was actually moving from D.C. the following week. It felt like a now or never opportunity, but I left my copy and headed back home.
The day before I was to move back to Austin, TX. My car already packed, his office called me to say that I could come and pick up my signed copy. Delighted I drove to the train station, hopped aboard and took the route to Capital Hill.
I knocked on the office door, heard a very distinct, very southern “Yes, come on in.” I walked inside and at the front desk stood the Congressman. He saw the shock on my face and immediately reached out his hand for me to shake. I thanked him in all the ways I could, especially for writing and signing my copy of “March.” I told him he inspired more than nearly anyone I could name, and that this was a privilege beyond my words.
As I remember one of his staff people asked me if I would like a picture. And I said yes, of course. Congressman Lewis said “Well, let’s not take it here, please come into my office.” He led me into his office where there were picture and items from some of the most important moments of American History, as well as several homey icons of Atlanta, Ga. There were photos of Selma, his time with Bobby Kennedy, the March on Washington, he and Barack Obama. He shared about a few of them, and encouraged me to keep fighting, that our democracy needs us young people.
You just can never know the blessing of a gracious experience like that. I don’t even care that I look like a shaggy stunned idiot in my photo, John Lewis told me to keep fighting.
John Lewis was the last person I spoke to, the last conversation I had in Washington, D.C. before moving back to Austin.
The third story was two years ago, it was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King and there was to be a celebration and memorial of his life in Memphis at the Lorraine Motel. I spent months debating whether or not I would go, but the evening before, I decided to drive through the night and arrived in Memphis early, without any sleep, on April 4th.
That morning was to be a re-enactment of the famous “I Am A Man” March that brought Dr. King to Memphis 50 years prior. I had plans to meet up with friends from the Charlottesville march, little did I know that I would get to march shoulder to shoulder with Bernie Sanders, with Dr. King’s children, with the original sanitation strikers, with Rev. Jim Lawson who trained Civil Rights workers like John Lewis in non-violence, with Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson. We marched from Beale street to Bishop Charles Mason Temple, where Dr. King gave his famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech the night before his murder.
Later in the day at the celebration of King’s life, several of the men who stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel 50 years prior shared their memories of that painful day. None more powerful than Jesse Jackson’s who is immortalized in the photographs pointing in the direction of the shot fired. He and Rev. James Lawson had such insightful reflections to share about the past and the moment we find ourselves in today.
The celebration ended with a surprise performance by Al Green and out came Jesse Jackson and John Lewis to dance along to “Let’s Stay Together” hahaha. I got to meet both Jesse Jackson and was pulled in by John Lewis’ staff to meet John Lewis once more.
These three days have burnt brightly into my soul and have helped shape the man I have become since moving to Washington. To be in the presence of such heroes, to hear their words and their stories, is a deeply inspiring and transformative thing.
John Lewis is my hero. His philosophies, his example, his faith, are a constant challenge and anchor to what I believe. His radical sense for justice….and for mercy and forgiveness lead me constantly to reconsider the brutality of my impulses. To lose him is difficult. But his life has pointed the way forward. And so we will do just that, carry the movement forward.
His life and legacy are an inspiration to the very best of what America can be. I consider it one of the greatest privileges of my life that he gave me just a little bit of his time. That I could be in his presence and hear his heart and hear his words. Please, please do yourself the favor of renting the newly released documentary about his life “John Lewis: Good Trouble” if you’ve never read his books, read them. Especially his ‘March’ trilogy. To lose him and C.T. Vivian in the same day….
These men lived and loved more passionately than hardly any of us could dare to aspire. We owe them so much. There is no greater way to pay your respects to these two heroes than to make sure your voice is counted. Vote. And fight with everything you have to make sure others maintain this right.