Remembering Congressman John Lewis:
Be bold. Be courageous. Be John.
“Every generation leaves behind a legacy. What that legacy will be is determined by the people of that generation. What legacy do you want to leave behind?” – John Lewis
For me, Congressman John Lewis’ legacy will be his passion and fight for civil and human rights. He believed that access to a quality education and access to the ballot box were the two great equalizers. Throughout his storied life, those two issues were non-negotiable.
Like so many others around the world, I am deeply saddened by our loss of Congressman John Lewis.
There are 535 Members of Congress, but there was only one John Lewis.
There are numerous civil rights activists, then and now, but there was only one John Lewis.
Personally, there been have many mentors and advisors in my life, but there was only one John Lewis.
While we have lost the last of the “Big 6” of his generation, which is devastating on its own, especially on the heels of the passing of Reverend C.T. Vivian, I’m grateful that God put him in my path from my birth until his death. I know I am a better person and a better leader because I knew him and could count on him as a loyal and true friend and supporter.
We shared a special bond, with roots in Alabama, and then making Atlanta our home. He knew my family and watched over me, giving me gentle guidance over the years and even leaning in most recently by coming to one of my school board meetings to express his support of me and the work we were doing for the children in Atlanta Public Schools.
We both shared an affinity and passion for championing young people, advocating for quality public education and protecting voting rights. While there was a 30-year age difference between us, at 80 years old, he could still outwork, outpace, outthink everyone around him, including me. I found that inspirational — with him, age was a state of mind, not a matter of years.
He often said, we had to “find good trouble” and that “hate was too heavy a burden to carry”. So, I’ve tried to live and lead with those two ideas in my heart and in my mind. Always challenging the status quo that allowed for disparity to exist in public education, that too often left black, brown and poor children behind. He believed our most sacred obligation is to give young people access to an excellent education. I always found good trouble in changing the landscape of public education; pushing our system to work for all children, irrespective of their background or zip code. And, I learned to waste no time or energy on hate. I learned to stay busy and happy in good trouble regardless of the ugly underbelly of politics. He modeled that for me – and you – his entire career.
Most people don’t realize when John Lewis first ran for Congress he lost, yet he did not quit. The second time he ran for Congress, he was not the “chosen one”. The establishment tried to talk him out the race and brought to bear their full political resources to defeat him. They told him it wasn’t his time or his turn. He rejected the notion that a few insiders, be they black or white, should choose the people’s candidate. That would have, in effect, taken away the voice of the people and allowed an opaque process to highjack the ballot box. He spent a lifetime preserving people’s right to choose. Against all odds, and with unwavering commitment to the democratic process, he won and went on to be the “Conscience of the Congress”.
Literally, he gave up his liberty and his blood for these two causes – education and the right to vote. Arrested over 40 times and beaten unconscious, he never wavered and he never hated. His north star never changed: “The vote is the most powerful, non-violent tool we have in a democratic society. We must not allow the power of the vote to be neutralized. We must never go back.”
I have tried to honor his impact on my life and our country. One way honors a pivotal moment for him and is in my hometown of Selma, Alabama. I encourage you to join me in signing the petition to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge after Congressman Lewis, a civil rights icon but also, in his passing, a symbol of perseverance and sacrifice for the common good of humanity.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge connects Selma to the highway that leads to the state capitol. It is now a National Historic Landmark. It is also the site of Bloody Sunday where John Lewis and other marchers were beaten and brutalized for their support of voting rights for Black Americans. If you don’t know who Edmund Winston Pettus was then it’s time you learned: He was a United States Senator, officer in the confederate army, and, most disturbing, after the war, served as a “grand dragon” in the Ku Klux Klan. During the 1960s, the KKK focused on terrorizing and opposing the Civil Rights Movement, often using violence and murder to suppress these activists especially in the Deep South. To continue to have Pettus’ name on the very bridge where the basic right to vote was won for Blacks is the wrong message to perpetuate. If there is anyone who deserves this honor to have his name on this bridge, it is John Lewis.
Another way to join me in celebrating his contributions is through my run group called (in his honor) The John Lewis Freedom Runners. In 2018, our group completed a 54-mile ultramarathon relay in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery in honor of civil rights activists like John Lewis to commemorate the Voting Rights March of 1965 and the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.
The John Lewis Freedom Runners have run all over the greater Atlanta area to support schools, nonprofits, friends, and more! With Congressman Lewis’ diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, the team organized to show our love and support for him with plans to run Five 5Ks in 5 Months in Congressional District 5 to raise $55,555.
We had an ambitious original goal, but COVID-19 had other plans. Ultimately, we were able to donate $5,000 each to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, that highlighted our group efforts here, the John Lewis Invictus Academy, and the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University for a total of $15,000! Thinking back now, I am so glad we made this commitment to run for these causes in his name and that we will continue to do so in remembrance of him.
I am devastated over the passing of our beloved statesman, but I am strengthened for having known him. Our nation is stronger for his leadership. I will miss my friend, my mentor and my supporter who I loved dearly. I take comfort in knowing that he would want us all to continue on our path and extend progress for his congressional district, our state and our nation. It is imperative that every American have access to quality education and the right to vote. We must be persistent and consistent if we are to ever build the Beloved Community. It is time to get in good trouble, necessary trouble, for the health and well-being of our nation.
In the words of John Lewis, “Never give up, never give in, never give out. Keep the faith and keep your eyes on the prize!”
Be bold. Be courageous. Be John.
God bless you, John Lewis, for all you have done for us.