OPINION — When Rep. John Lewis announced Sunday night that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, you could almost hear the country cry. Democrats and Republicans, Hollywood actors and people who had simply met the congressman in an airport, all went to Twitter to ask the 17-term Georgia Democrat to fight one more time.
“You are loved. You are respected. You are magnificent,” Ava DuVernay wrote. “Praying for you, my friend,” former president Barack Obama tweeted. “The Late Show” host Steven Colbert called Lewis “a leader, a teacher, an example for us all,” while Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Lewis’ longtime friend who counts Lewis as a hero as he mounts his own fight against Parkinson’s disease, wrote, “They don’t make them stronger or braver.”
From Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Kellyanne Conway and everyone in between, the outpouring of emotion tells you almost everything you need to know both about Lewis, the civil rights icon, and the moment we’re living in today. Americans have always found our heroes at the darkest times in our history, but it’s rare that our history is still living alongside us, as Lewis is. On a weekend when a man stabbed five people at a Hanukkah party and another man shot two in a Texas church, we look for leaders to tell us we’ll get through this era of hate, with Americans killing Americans because of their religion or skin color or for no reason at all. Without Lewis, who would tell us they’ve seen worse and believe this will get better, too, if we fight to make it happen?
Lewis was born in Troy, Alabama, when the South segregated blacks and whites so thoroughly that that Lewis was unable to vote, to enroll in his local college, and even to get a public library card. Young Lewis sent a letter to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., already a civil rights leader, and joined the Freedom Riders, insisting on integration of the South through nonviolent protest.
That led Lewis on a journey to speak alongside King, who called Lewis “the boy from Troy,” as the youngest leader at the 1963 March on Washington. He stood in front of Alabama state troopers in Selma in 1965 before they beat him trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge; and stood next to President Lyndon Johnson when he signed the Voting Rights Act later that year. Lewis was arrested 40 times before he was elected to Congress and 5 times since in what he calls his “mission to help redeem the soul of America.” It’s a mission he continues today.
I first met Lewis in his Capitol Hill office in 1989 — two years after he was first elected to represent the Fifth District of Georgia. I was just a high school student from the district stopping by with my mother to sign the guest book while we were in Washington.
“Come in and visit,” the Congressman said with a smile. “Have you been to the Capitol? I’ll take you there.” Lewis walked us through the Capitol tunnels past the state student art exhibits — “This one is from Atlanta!” — and over to the House floor. He asked the clerk to turn on the electronic voting board and told me to give it a try. I voted yes.
I have never forgotten the thrill of that day, the kindness John Lewis offered my mother and me, or the similar stories I’ve heard from other Atlantans from all walks of life — inspired by their member of Congress and proud, always, of the man he is. How many Americans can say the same?
Throughout his career, those who know Lewis have described him as a man of fame without pretense, often walking alone in an airport and without an entourage at events. He stands tall, even at 5 feet 6 inches, and can command a room with just a whisper of wisdom on fairness or justice or the requirement to act for what we know is right.
He has joyfully taken his fight to young people with graphic novels about the Civil Rights movement and a mobbed appearance at ComicCon. But he’s kept his fight for equality alive by expanding it to immigration and health care and criminal justice reform. Lewis led the sit-in on the House floor in 2016 to push for gun safety legislation and, earlier this year, added his voice to the call for the president’s impeachment, which started the momentum to make it a reality. When John Lewis says something is not right, Democrats always listen. Many Republicans do, too.
One voice that has been absent in the chorus of well-wishes for Lewis since Sunday has been the president’s. But that’s certainly not a surprise in light of Lewis’ impeachment vote and Trump’s 2017 tweet that Lewis was, “All talk, talk, talk — no action or results. Sad!” He added that district is “in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested).” Speaking from experience, neither is true.
But if we know anything of Lewis, it’s that he has already forgiven the truly unforgivable in the past and likely will again. He’s seen the very worst that our country can be and stayed faithful that someday it would get better. That, in essence, seems to be what the grief over Lewis’s news has been about.
John Lewis is living proof, still, that America’s darkest days can see the dawn, that hate can subside, and that there is still a place for dignity, character and truth in our country and our capital. Don’t go yet, John Lewis. We need you.
Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.