Legacy and a Dream: The Story of John Lewis

If Dr. Martin Luther King had a dream that could be imbued within one being, it would be the legendary Congressman John Lewis. It could also be said that as artful as the Reverend King was in word, the Congressman embodied King’s vision.  By all accounts, Congressman Lewis was a walking time machine of progressive change. Born on February 21st, 1940 in Troy, Alabama, John Robert Lewis, aka “Preacher”, is remembered for this mantra: “Don’t look back, don’t give up, never give out and never give in.”  A stalwart figure who died July 17th, “but not without a fight”, quotes Tammy Boyd, a former Chief of Staff member.

Lewis wrote, “I had my first taste of politics as president of the student body at American Baptist Theological Seminary in 1961”. And since that fateful year, his legacy continues unabated, making an imprint on the socio-political and spiritual landscape of our nation. 

Congressman John Lewis leveraged an indelible mark on America as one of Dr. King’s early associates. Helping to reshape and change our history throughout the 1960’s Black Civil Rights Movement and beyond.  His family, loved ones, and many of our fellow citizens are all still reeling from the loss of one of our greatest heroes – a superpower who left behind a footprint that encoded the script to universally raise the bar for all humankind.

The life of Congressman Lewis embodied the living blueprint of how to succeed as a political activist – a legacy that embodies the American Dream. Although born into a simple sharecropper family, he used his talents to reach the halls of the US Congress.

A former head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the youngest speaker at the March on Washington in his early political journey, Congressman Lewis is now remembered for his dedication to black civil rights. But, it is not well known that he gave equal energy to women’s rights, the rights of immigrants, as well as to American’s basic human needs such as clean water and fresh air. Ms. Boyd fondly states that “Congressman Lewis provided a roadmap for showing how determination and resilience can inspire people to continue to strive – all while remaining committed to public service.”

MLK and the Dream

In King’s address to the nation, we were reminded of his prophetic words that “We are a whole body politic standing in [our] most segregated hour.” 

Surveying the life and times of Congressman Lewis – having been physically beaten several times in the fight for social justice – we can witness the embodiment of King’s words.

Ms. Boyd states, “Although not a tall figure, he always had the largest presence in the room.  It was something deep within him that served as a catalyst for helping to get the Voting Rights Act passed, whereby he’d put his life on the line – physically, to stand up for what he believed in.”

Quoting Lewis – after being arrested with fellow Freedom Riders – he remarked in Walking With The Wind, that “it felt like we were in a crusade as if we were prisoners of a holy war. [yet] A year later I would celebrate my 21st birthday.” 

Prayer and Power

It was not uncommon for Lewis to kneel and be lead by his faith in prayer with his close-knit staffers drawing from those early days in prayer with local residents and protestors.  Epitomizing the winds of change, together with SNCC and emboldened by the spirit of the age,  Lewis became a poster child for the recruitment of social transformation which could have read, “COME LET US BUILD A NEW WORLD TOGETHER”.  Indeed, John Lewis did bring many into the fold of this particular vision. Many of whom later took up this mantle of justice, such as the likes of Barack Obama. 

Life and Legacy

Plans are underway to document the life and legacy of Congressman Lewis.  Arguably one of his biggest legislative accomplishments as a U.S. Congressman was the Creation of the National Museum of African American History & Culture.  Lewis had to negotiate with everyone in the house, which was not an easy feat. Boyd states, “In working with him, I got to really see his persistence, it [the negotiations] failed fifteen times.  In 2001 we introduced the legislation to a bipartisan (both Democratic and Republican) house.  He was able to work with everyone and to cross party lines, continuing Dr. King’s dream.  He was so respected that everyone wanted to work with him.  His efforts really opened the door to having meaningful conversations around the legislation.”

The African American Museum and Congress

Lewis led the path of persistence and navigated a complex environment to ultimately get the museum bill through congress.  It is rumored that his fellow congressmen and women did not do it for the politics, but out of respect for Lewis, “and that respect is what transcended the party rhetoric”, stated Boyd. “The museum was a dream come true.   At every turn, he’d say ‘Pace yourself and keep the faith when you are fighting for something that’s bigger than yourself!’ ”

Architect of a Social Movement

Congressman Lewis’ journey outlined the syllabus to recalibrate and reverse engineer America’s way out of stone-age thinking and into Christ-consciousness.  Lewis served to bridge the gap between that which divides our society and write the bills that help right those wrongs.

Black Lives Matter

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is a continuation of Lewis’s lineage.  Some of our present-day scholars and social activists who’ve picked up the mantle, such as Prof. Kimberlee Crenshaw, Michelle Alexander, Tim Wise, Dr. Joy DeGruy, Robin DeAngelo and Brown University, Prof. Tricia Rose all outline the causes and effects that foster the underpinnings of systemic racism.  For instance, the health disparities of African-American people who are dying disproportionately at alarming rates.  Lewis was very committed to heightening the awareness of these health disparities and known for bringing opposing sides into one unifying force.  It was Congressman Lewis who held up the torch that lead Ted Kennedy to work closely with him and draft and advocate for The Healthcare Fairness Act of 1999, signed into law by former President Bill Clinton.

The National African American History and Culture Act of 2003

Held as one of Congressman Lewis’s grandest acts, prompted Richard Parsons, former CEO of Time Warner, to help raise the money and open the museum.  The Museum opened Sept 24, 2016.  It is the only national museum devoted exclusively to the history and the culture of African American life. Lewis worked on this bill for over seventeen years and even gained the support of Dick Cheney, later signed by George Bush. The Congressman worked in tandem with former Congressman JC  Watts (R-Oklahoma), and former Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) in doing so.  Within the legislation was a provision that included a public-private partnership to build the museum.

With the help of Parsons, Lewis’s dream of the museum on the national mall became a reality. Parsons stated, “John Lewis was a giant. He will be missed not only by his family and many friends but also by his colleagues in the congress with whom he served for so many years.  It was my pleasure to raise private capital for the project as well as host him at MINTONS, Harlem’s premier Jazz supper club. Indeed, to the tune of such high profile attendees as Sheila Johnson, owner of Salamander Resorts, Valentino Carlotti, (then) former Senior Partner of Goldman Sachs, Ed Lewis, founder of Essence Magazine, Tamron Hall, talk show host, AJ Calloway of Entertainment Tonight, and Michael Lomax, President of UNCF. All who came out on a star-studded night to lift their glasses to the man who raised the bar and showed the world how to truly live a great American Dream!”

His Spirit Never Dies

According to Boyd, John Lewis kept up the fight even as he was being called home to even greater things. Considering the magnitude of the heart and spirit of this man, Boyd confided, “He got up from his hospital bed in the final stages of pancreatic cancer, still very weak, and went down to the Black Lives Matter plaza in DC. That was essentially the symbol of him passing the baton and the shifting of the era to the next generation to continue what he and Dr. King started in the Civil Rights Movement.”

Congressman John Lewis lives on!  He will continue to inform our lives in the shifting of the times.

By Diahne Parsons

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