Why John Lewis Matters—Now More Than EverBreaking News
tags: civil rights, voting rights
Throughout the Black Lives Matter demonstrations of the past weeks, his name was evoked by activists and news anchors. His message of nonviolence has been conveyed repeatedly—in a powerful new documentary and several recent children’s books. Indeed, over this past weekend, politicians called for his name to be affixed to the Voting Rights Act and even to the Edmund Pettus Bridge itself—the historic span, across the Alabama River, where Lewis was clubbed and bloodied 55 years ago.
John Lewis, in life and in death, has been everywhere lately. Even as I write this, an authorized biography of the widely revered civil rights activist and U.S. congressman from Georgia is being rushed to print. The book, His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope, by Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Jon Meacham, contains an incident that perfectly encapsulates the modest, exemplary character of Lewis, who died Friday after a battle with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
The date was August 28, 1963. The setting was the White House, where Martin Luther King Jr. and a group of civil rights leaders—a 23-year-old John Lewis among them—were meeting with President John F. Kennedy. At one point when photographs were being taken, Lewis was hidden in the back. James Forman—a colleague of Lewis’s on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—often urged Lewis, a protégé of Dr. King’s and a rising voice in the movement for racial justice, to push his way to the front in situations like this. Lewis quietly refused. He later explained why. “I’ve never been the kind of person who naturally attracts the limelight,” he said. “I’m not a handsome guy. I’m not flamboyant. I’m not what you would call elegant. I’m short and stocky. My skin is dark, not fair…For some or all of these reasons, I simply have never been the kind of guy who draws attention.”
The breadth and richness of his 80-year life journey belie the absurdity of such a statement. For, if nothing else, John Lewis over the decades would become famous for drawing attention, for placing his imprint on the narrative of this country, an imprint that is deeply entrenched and has been continually discovered and rediscovered by each generation.
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