Weekly Column

Aug 03 2020

Mourning a Patriot

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When asked why he chose to dedicate his life to the fight for civil rights and racial equality, the late Congressman John Lewis once said, “Brother, each of us has the opportunity and the responsibility.”

He was right, of course. We all have the duty to stand up for what we believe in.

Born in 1940 in Troy, Alabama, John Lewis experienced discrimination from a young age. The third of ten children, his parents were sharecroppers, and he grew up poor. On the family farm, he was responsible for taking care of the chickens. He did this well, but this young boy had higher aspirations: He wanted to be a preacher.

And so at the age of five, he began to preach to his chickens. He preached his first public sermon a decade later, when he was just 15.

This talent for public speaking proved useful a few years later during the 1963 March on Washington. Though he was only 23 years old at the time, he was chosen to be one of the march’s six main organizers.

The day that Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, John Lewis spoke to the same crowd of hundreds of thousands about the violence and hate he had witnessed throughout his life, including during the Freedom Rides through the still-segregated South two years earlier.

He asked that day that those who believed in the Declaration of Independence’s promise of God-given equal rights for all continue fighting for it “until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete.”

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King expressed the same sentiment. He wrote that the fight for civil rights was nothing more than the fight to bring “our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers.”

John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the other great leaders of the Civil Rights era were bound together by their belief in our founding ideals. For them, the problem wasn’t America itself – it was America’s failure to keep its word. 

These leaders owed a great debt to Frederick Douglass, a former slave and incredible orator who fought a similar fight over abolition a century before and who ultimately found success by appealing to the ideals of our founding.

Because of Douglass and other abolitionists, this country rid itself of the sin of slavery. And in large part because of John Lewis, the descendents of those slaves finally became full participants in our democracy. 

John Lewis went on to become Congressman Lewis, and for more than 30 years he humbly served the people of Georgia and continued to work within Congress to make sure we keep the promises we made in 1776.

We have come a long way, but many of these promises remain unfulfilled. Too many Americans still live in fear because of the color of their skin. Two months after the death of George Floyd, protests for the worthy cause of equality for all continue across the country. Unfortunately, many of these have been hijacked by people whose vision of this country could not be further from that of John Lewis.

Rather than give in to our frustration, we must honor his legacy by upholding his lifelong commitment to nonviolence and helping others. There is more work to do, and John Lewis’s life shows us the way forward.

Thank you for participating in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you again next week.