Fort Report: John Lewis
On March 7, 1965, on Selma, Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, Alabama state troopers gassed and beat hundreds of nonviolent protesters who were there protesting for voting rights. The first to be beaten was the young John Lewis, whose skull was cracked by the blunt force of a billy club. Photographer and TV reporters caught the brutal violence of “Bloody Sunday,” which would go on to define the legacy of Lewis, stir the conscience of America, and quickly galvanize political and legislative action behind civil rights for all Americans. The 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed two months later.
On Tuesday of this week, I visited the flag-draped casket bearing the remains of the late Congressman John Lewis, as he laid in state at the top of the main steps of the East Capitol entrance. I viewed the casket from inside the Capitol, from where I could see a long line of socially distanced mourners of all races, ages, and backgrounds––waiting patiently in DC summer heat to pay respects to the civil rights icon.
As I gazed alone at the casket of Mr. Lewis, it seemed to have a gravitational pull towards which the normally frenetic energy of the place was drawn in calm remembrance. It also seemed to briefly still the wild discord of our current moment, taking dominion in the heart, pulling all that came before it into solemn recognition of greatness.
One of the 13 original Freedom Riders and an early leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, John Lewis was one of the “Big Six” surrounding the late Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Only 23 years old, John Lewis was the youngest speaker at the pivotal 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Together they moved this country towards a proper footing on race.
In the ensuing years, few figures in the halls of Congress stood as tall as Mr. Lewis, who served for decades as the principled and at times pugnacious 17-term U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District. One time I approached Representative Lewis about a bipartisan initiative in support of human dignity, around which I felt we could find common cause. As always, Mr. Lewis was cordial, kind, and dignified. Though he declined my invitation, Congressman Lewis, or “John” as he liked to be called, modeled the kind of respect for the opposing side that stayed with me. He was always personally kind to me and my family. It was an honor to have served alongside him.
Born into segregation as a son of sharecroppers, John Lewis nearly died on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Now there is a move to rename the bridge in his honor.
May he Rest in Peace.