I selected the image above with some care and thought. It was posted on social media in 2016 by John Lewis upon the 49th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act being signed into law by Lyndon Johnson. John Lewis was not only present at this historic occasion, but his activism helped inspire the bill itself. John Lewis *was* American history and now he’s gone at the age of 80 after losing a battle with pancreatic cancer.
John Lewis was one of my heroes. He never lost his passion or sense of humor. He was a man with a big voice and an even bigger heart. He was never petty and was always willing to accept changes in former adversaries. He famously forgave George Wallace in 1979 when the latter expressed remorse over the chaos and havoc he wrought during the Sixties.
The New York Times has republished a 1998 piece he wrote after Wallace’s death, which those who are using John Lewis’ death to settle petty scores should read:
When I met George Wallace, I had to forgive him, because to do otherwise — to hate him — would only perpetuate the evil system we sought to destroy.
George Wallace should be remembered for his capacity to change. And we are better as a nation because of our capacity to forgive and to acknowledge that our political leaders are human and largely a reflection of the social currents in the river of history.
It’s hard to be as big a person as John Lewis but we should try.
He would, however, note the irony of those who would limit the franchise speaking in glowing terms of his lifetime of service. The best tribute to John Lewis would be to reinstate the Voting Rights Act in all its glory.
Central to my admiration of John Lewis were his kindness and fundamental decency. He was proof positive that you could be a firebrand without being an asshole. Too many Americans confuse assholery with strength and leadership. John Lewis never did. Again, we should follow his example. Being the bigger person isn’t always easy but it’s the right thing to do.
As I searched the internet yesterday, I came upon a tribute that John Lewis wrote about another one of my heroes, David Halberstam after his death in 2007:
I have often said that without the members of the media, the Civil Rights Movement would have been like a bird without wings. David Halberstam, as a reporter for The Nashville Tennessean, was a sympathetic referee who helped to convey the depth of injustice in the South as well as the heart and soul of a movement that would transform America. We talked to him because we trusted him.
We trusted John Lewis to do and say the right thing. He was always focused on the big picture, which is what made him such a singular figure during his nearly sixty years on the national stage. John Lewis kept his eyes on the prize.