Colleagues and leaders remember John Lewis as a humble mentor, in addition to an icon

As tributes pour in, colleagues recall a large-than-life figure who took time for everyone

From left, Reps. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Lucy McBath, D-Ga., John Lewis, D-Ga., Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., walk through the Capitol Rotunda after watching a Senate a vote on a continuing resolution to re-open the government which failed, on Thursday, January 24, 2019.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
From left, Reps. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Lucy McBath, D-Ga., John Lewis, D-Ga., Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., walk through the Capitol Rotunda after watching a Senate a vote on a continuing resolution to re-open the government which failed, on Thursday, January 24, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 18, 2020 at 2:26pm

Outpourings of grief, gratitude and remembrance followed the news of Rep. John Lewis’ death Friday night, from lawmakers and leaders on both sides of the aisle and a new generation that is holding tight to his mentorship. 

Flags at the Capitol, the White House and government buildings across the country flew at half staff Saturday, at the direction of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump. 

It is not yet clear how large public tributes, such as a memorial service or a ceremony at the Capitol, will be handled while restrictions on large gatherings remain in place as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

Early Saturday morning, former President Barack Obama added his words to the chorus of praise for the Georgia Democrat, referencing a recent virtual meeting together with activists leading demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd's death. 

President Barack Obama greets Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., as he arrives in the House chamber for his first address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call)

“He could not have been prouder of their efforts — of a new generation standing up for freedom and equality, a new generation intent on voting and protecting the right to vote, a new generation running for political office,” Obama wrote in a post on Medium. “They had learned from his example, even if they didn’t know it.”

“Not many of us get to live to see our own legacy play out in such a meaningful, remarkable way. John Lewis did. And thanks to him, we now all have our marching orders — to keep believing in the possibility of remaking this country we love until it lives up to its full promise,” wrote Obama. 

Pelosi repeated what she had said about Lewis so many times before, that he was “the conscience of the Congress,” and honored “the moral leadership he brought to the Congress for more than 30 years.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that “Congressman Lewis’ place among the giants of American history was secure before his career in Congress had even begun.” 

“You did not need to agree with John on many policy details to be awed by his life, admire his dedication to his neighbors in Georgia’s Fifth District, or appreciate his generous, respectful, and friendly bearing,” the Kentucky Republican wrote. Like Lewis, McConnell was born in Alabama.

From left, Martin Luther King III, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.,join hands to sing "We Shall Overcome," during a ceremony to honor the 40th anniversary of the assassination Martin Luther King Jr., which occurred on April 4, 1968. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Former President Jimmy Carter remembered him as a fellow Georgian.

“He made an indelible mark on history through his quest to make our nation more just,” wrote Carter. “John never shied away from what he called ‘good trouble’ to lead our nation on the path toward human and civil rights. Everything he did, he did in a spirit of love. All Americans, regardless of race or religion, owe John Lewis a debt of gratitude.”

As the sun rose Saturday morning, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn recorded a video with his thoughts on losing his close friend overnight.

“I am doing this tape during sunrise, because I do believe that as the sun set on John Lewis’ life last night, the sun rises on a movement that will never die. Thank you, John, rest in peace my brother,” the South Carolina Democrat said.

He recalled meeting Lewis in 1960 and how their first weekend organizing together for civil rights was “transformative” for him.

“We never thought back then that we would be successful enough in the movement to both end up serving in Congress together. Yet, for almost 27 years we did, because he never lost faith,” said Clyburn.

Rep. John Lewis pictured in August 1991. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Clyburn said that as he rose the ranks in the Democratic Caucus, he never asked Lewis to nominate him for leadership positions.

“I never wanted John Lewis to be put in a position of not being able to say he was for everybody. Because he was. He was that kind of person,” said Clyburn.

Conscience and mentor of the Congress

Inside Congress, lawmakers’ awe of Lewis extended well beyond his Civil Rights legacy. House Democrats leaned on him for inspiration, which he would regularly provide both in speeches to the full caucus and in one-on-one settings.

“He was more than a colleague to me, and so many others — he was a mentor and a moral guide,” California Rep. Linda T. Sánchez said in a statement.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., greets Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., in the Capitol's House chamber before members were sworn in on the first day of the 116th Congress on Jan. 3, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Another California Democrat, Rep. Ro Khanna, tweeted that Lewis “was a beacon of wisdom, hope, and justice for our entire caucus & nation.”

“There isn’t a member among us who wasn’t mentored by him,” he said.

Khanna’s remark is not an overstatement. Seemingly every House Democrat has a story about a time when Lewis helped or inspired them. Many have shared those stories in the hours since his death, and posted pictures of themselves posing with their beloved colleague and mentor.

“Still can’t believe that I got to work with my hero. Besides all of his courageous work for justice, what always struck me was just how kind he was to everyone he met,” Rep. Brendan Boyle tweeted.

The Pennsylvania Democrat’s tweet featured a photo of him and Lewis that he said was taken “at about midnight while we were engaging in a daylong sit-in on the House floor to protest for a vote on our gun violence bill in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting.”

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., along with other members, address demonstrators on the East Front of the Capitol after the House Democrats' sit-in ended on the floor, June 23, 2016. The Democrats were are calling on Republicans to allow a vote on measure to address gun violence. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Lauren Underwood tweeted that she first met Lewis in 2006 as an intern before becoming his colleague in 2019.

“I always felt an overwhelming sense that there was so much to learn from him, and never enough time,” the Illinois Democrat said.

Lewis viewed his colleagues as equals, and in interactions he wanted make clear he was accessible as a friend.

“Every time I would see him, I would say, ‘Hello Mr. John Lewis.’ He would respond, ‘please call me John.’ And I would say, ‘okay, Mr. John Lewis.’ We would both laugh,” Rep. Val Demings said in a statement.

“I was in awe in the ‘60s and am still in awe today of the man who was larger than life,” the Florida Democrat added. “Mr. John Lewis was strong as a lion, yet gentle as dove. … In the dark and difficult days, he reminded us to protect our inner light, maintain our hope and our spirit; that only despair can impede the cause of justice.”

Lewis also referred to his colleagues as family and made them feel part of his enormous world.

“For all that he had been through and done, he had a lightness of spirit that was warm and welcoming,” Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joaquin Castro said in a tweet. “When I would see him he would often ask, ‘How’re you doing, young brother?’”

“John was the one person who — when he spoke on the House floor — everyone would be quiet and actually listen respectfully — without grievance or cynicism,” the Texas Democrat added. “For a moment all the layers of partisan rancor built up over the years would melt away. He moved people.”

Rep. Ilhan Omar tweeted that Lewis “called me ‘daughter’ and would tell me how incredible it was for me to be in Congress and visit Africa with him as his colleague.”

“He never lost his youthful joy and passion for democracy,” the Minnesota Democrat, who was born in Somalia, said. “It was so contagious and fueled all who knew and loved him.”

Many members also tweeted stories and photos of Lewis taking to their constituents who visited the Capitol, and in some cases Lewis made trips to colleagues’ districts to deliver one of his many inspirational speeches.

“Always an inspiration and a leader. Willing to share his time to encourage and teach the young,” Tennessee Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen said, quote-tweeting a woman named Sherwanda Chism who had shared a picture of Cohen and Lewis from 10 years ago when she and her students visited Cohen.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., speaks to 7th graders from the Epstein School, located in Atlanta, about Congress and his role in the civil rights struggle as they sit on the House steps on Thursday, April 15, 2010. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

“We were preparing to take a group pic & Cohen beckoned for Rep. Lewis as he was walking by,” Chism said. “Lewis blessed us and spoke words of encouragement into our lives.”

Lewis’s presence in Congress was felt every day, and his absence will be too.

“Never angry or puffed up with self importance, he was a humble servant who loved humanity,” Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson tweeted. “And we loved him back.”