John Lewis, ‘The Conscious of Congress’, grew up in segregated Alabama, toiled as a youth picking cotton, and experienced firsthand the injustices of racism; yet his inimitable humanity, capacity for love, and bravery triumphed.
John Lewis was born the son of a sharecropper into a family of ten. He graduated from the American Baptist Theological Seminary and was ordained a minister after working as a janitor and dishwasher to pay for his education. At age 21, he was one of the first 13 Freedom Riders, a mix of white and black young people who peacefully rode public transportation from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans in an effort to pressure the U.S. government to enforce the Supreme Court decision that segregated interstate travel was unconstitutional. During the trip, Lewis, along with the other riders were spat upon, beaten, and arrested, yet Lewis, insisted that the group remain peaceful. As Lewis later told a reporter:
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“ We role played. We acted out what we should do in each scenario: if we were beaten, jailed, or worse. I reminded everyone that we should look at our oppressors and see them as they were when they were young and innocent. To try to understand them as victims of their rage. We locked eyes with the enemy. We showed them that we were human and kindred.”
During his life, John Lewis would be arrested as part of peaceful demonstrations more than 40 times. In 1986 he was elected to Congress and served from 1987 to his death in July 2020 of pancreatic cancer.
Understood The Value Of Love
At a young age, Lewis’ humanity and capacity for love were evinced by his strong affinity for his family’s flock of chickens. As Lewis recounted:
“We had many chickens growing up and I loved them. I would preach to them and give them care. Watching the chickens gave me a chance to see and understand individual behavior and to be self-reflective. I believed that chickens had souls and as their preacher, I was responsible for their safety and salvation. I even used to baptize them and give them funerals.
Once my mother killed one of the chickens for us to eat. I was so upset that I refused to eat dinner that night and I didn’t talk to either of my parents for three days. You could say it was my first peaceful protest.
It was a youthful understanding of things, this affection that I had for our flock, but it was the start of my capacity to see outside of myself and into the lives of others. It was the start of my journey to understanding the value of love and that love is strong, brave, and indefatigable.”
Throughout his career, Lewis was not afraid to praise the value of love and to champion it as one of mankind’s most valuable assets.
Cued up to Lewis recounting segregated Alabama, his decision to make ‘good trouble’, and the value of love.
An Original Thinker
When listening to recordings of John Lewis, one never gets the sense that he is regurgitating bible verses, political platforms, or popular messaging of the day. His interviews and speeches are reflections of his observations and of the lessons he learned living his life and acting on his beliefs. In 1963, at only the age of 23, Lewis spoke at the historic March on Washington and outlined one of the most progressive strategies of the day for moving equal rights forward. Understanding the value of raw, youthful drive and insight he later said, “I want to see young people in America feel the spirit of the 1960s and find a way to get in the way. To find a way to get in trouble. Good trouble, necessary trouble.”
John Lewis reflects on his past during a trip to an Atlanta museum.
Never Let Go Of His Vision
You often hear politicians exhorting us to have faith in God, but Lewis encouraged us have faith in a future we choose to move towards and to build together. It is one of the big reasons why he was able to endure the brutal beatings and jail time that he suffered as a peaceful demonstrator. It also enabled him to see his opponents through a lens of compassion and understanding, a skill that was critical to his success as a mediator, politician, and social bridge-builder.
Lewis will be laid in state in front of the U.S Capital this week. Regardless of your political or religious beliefs, we encourage you to meditate on the life of a man who was innately compassionate, original, reflective, and proactive in making the world a better place.
Never afraid to be himself, to show he loved, or to pursue happiness for all of us. RIP Congressman. Your work and your dreams live on!