Beaten repeatedly during non-violent civil rights demonstrations in the turbulent 1960s, long-serving Congressman John Lewis (D, GA) had sufficient reason to lead a life filled with bitterness and recrimination. But he didn’t.
Like former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, long-imprisoned anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela and Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, Lewis channeled his anger and passion into advocating for tolerance in a country where bigotry often trumped human compassion.
Lewis died July 17, 2020 at 80 from pancreatic cancer. His strong constitution and rock-solid determination could not overcome an often fatal form of cancer.
During his lifetime, particularly for more than 30 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, Lewis’ voice embodied an impassioned plea for fairness and equality. Democrats and Republicans alike knew that Lewis’ fervent calls for equal voting and housing rights rose from the soul of person who had endured the worst vestiges of crushing segregation and lawless law enforcement.
Lewis’ words were poignant, personal and searing. He had served bravely in the trenches of the battle for civil rights for people whose only offense was the color of their skin, not the quality of their being. He understood senseless and pervasive bias.
In 1965, as he joined many others in crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL, he suffered a fractured skull at the disgraceful hands of a baton-wielding white policeman.
Some may have abandoned the civil rights movement to tend to physical and emotional scars. But not John Lewis.
When treated for a long time as second-class citizens in a country that prided itself on freedom and liberty for all, many might accept that reality and choose to avoid fighting for equal treatment. After all, progress might have seemed improbable, if not impossible, and often dangerous.
Mandela, who later became president of South Africa, could have lost his will and shriveled up in a brutal prison. He chose to live and change his country.
Douglass could have remained a slave in Talbot County. But instead he escaped and became one of the most highly regarded voices in in the abolitionist movement.
Wiesel could have accepted what seemed to be an inevitable death sentence in a Nazi killing camp. But he prevailed, determined to survive and tell the story of unconscionable atrocity in his evocative book, “Night.”
It’s clear by now that I unabashedly admire the character and courage of John Lewis and those who preceded him as inhabitants of a cruel reality dictated by soulless people who failed to understand their mean-spirited and often deadly impulses.
On July 30, the New York Times published an essay written by Lewis for publication on the day of his funeral. It bespeaks optimism about the future, as epitomized by the burgeoning Black Lives Movement sparked by the killing in late May of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman.
“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the most excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring,” Lewis wrote as he was dying.
Lewis’ simple but eloquent words are open to all of us for interpretation and adherence.
His final words should inspire everyone, regardless of skin color or religion or gender or sexual preference:
“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war.”
His language evokes no bitterness, no anger, no spite and retribution. He simply is calling for all Americans to be better.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.