From “Leaving Normal” a collection of essays
“If you’re not hopeful and optimistic, then you just give up. You have to take the long hard look and just believe that if you’re consistent, you will succeed.” ~John Lewis~
In the wake of his passing, I am called to remember the honorable John Lewis, as he was, in every way, exemplary of what is possible- if one believes.
While ending his life as a revered politician, Mr. Lewis was such an extraordinary human being that few words can describe his single-handed relevance, impact and place in history.
His public story began as a “ 25-year-old activist wearing a long tan jacket and carrying a backpack, helping to marshal hundreds of demonstrators across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. …bombarded by clouds of tear gas and swarmed by state troopers wielding clubs, one of which fractured his skull,” ( NY Times) from that infamous day later known as “Bloody Sunday,” to his Freedom Ride, multiple arrests for peacefully protesting, and 17 terms in Congress- a beloved leader, activist, politician and inspiration, his life was a study in tenacity and belief, and the highest held conviction that there was a better way – that hatred could and would be overcome- so much so, he was willing to risk his life over and over again to prove it.
“The son of sharecroppers, born outside of Troy, Alabama, he grew up on his family’s farm and attended segregated public schools in Pike County, Alabama. As a young boy, he was inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which he heard on radio broadcasts. In those pivotal moments, he made a decision to become a part of the Civil Rights Movement. Ever since then, he had remained at the vanguard of progressive social movements and the human rights struggle in the United States.” ( John Lewis.House.gov)
He was beaten by the Ku Klux Klan and by the police, jailed repeatedly, and continually forced to move forward while ignoring friendly voices warning him not to push too hard against the apartheid legislated in large parts of America.
Lewis was one of the 13 original Freedom Riders. In 1961, interstate bus travel was regulated by federal law, which prohibited segregation, and the riders looked to force the issue while travelling through southern states. While trying to use whites-only facilities in a bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Lewis became the first rider assaulted. Two men beat and kicked him attempting to murder him.
The change for which he battled, slowly, slowly shifted but never fully manifested. It was in politics that he believed he could make the biggest difference. He was elected to the US House of Representatives, where he also served in leadership positions, and was called “the conscience of Congress.”