Yesterday, I met Congressman John Lewis. I shook his hand, spoke with him, and posed for a few pictures. I listened as he told a group of students about his life growing up in rural Alabama, about his father who was a sharecropper, about the way he always questioned segregation, though his mother warned him to stay out of trouble and stop asking questions.
We’re all fortunate that he never stopped asking questions. That the innate sense of injustice he felt as a boy drove him to act as a young man. We still have a long way to go in this country, but people who look like me wouldn’t be as far along as we are without people like John Lewis. People willing to risk their lives for a movement from which they might never benefit.
My origin story — how I got involved in political organizing and campaigns — pales in comparison to his. Rep. Lewis held the entire room in thrall as he told us that meeting Rosa Parks at 17 and Martin Luther King, Jr. at 18 is what turned him into an activist.
He talked about marching in Selma and barely making it out alive.
He talked about the importance of voting, how it was life and death in those days.
It’s still life and death, but it’s not as visceral and immediate, so folks seem to have forgotten. Rep. Lewis urged everyone to vote, to do their small part to save our democracy. It’s precious, that vote. A flame we have to hold in cupped hands as the winds lash around us. Because that flame can go out.
As I listened to this powerhouse of the Civil Rights Movement, I thought about how annoyed I am whenever someone tells me they don’t plan to vote, or they ran out of time, or they aren’t even registered and don’t care. It infuriates me, but I can’t even imagine how frustrating it must be for someone like John Lewis. I never rode into the segregated south to make sure people had the rights I take for granted every day. I have never been beaten on my way to the polls. As flawed as race relations in America still are to this day, I have never feared for my life when exercising my right to vote. That is a gift. And people like John Lewis are the ones who bestowed it upon every person of color in this country. But gifts can be taken away.
One woman asked what made Rep. Lewis decide to run for office. His eloquent response was immediate, and it brought tears to my eyes. Recounting it here would not do it justice, but as my activism is a mere echo of the fire of John Lewis’s activism, so too can my words be a distant echo of the ones he spoke not even 24 hours ago.
He said that he watched as John F. Kennedy was assassinated. And then he lost his friend, Martin Luther King, Jr. He was with Robert Kennedy when he heard the news. They were friends too, and they mourned together. And then, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated as well. He said that of the 10 speakers at the March on Washington, where MLK gave his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, he was the youngest, and he is the only one still alive today. That loss of life, the threat to the movement, is what compelled him to run, to serve, to keep pushing for what was right. He urged us to heal the division in this country, and quoted his friend:
‘ We must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools’.
And, oh, what fools we’ve been. Not bothering to vote. Watching as a group of motivated members of one political party make all the rules for the rest of us. Allowing hyper partisan politics to divide us into even smaller, less effective groups.
I’ve always voted, but I haven’t always been involved. That laziness, that distinctly American acquiescence, stopped on November 9th, 2016. John Lewis’s activism started in his youth, when he questioned segregation, and those burning questions led him to action. I had questions too as a very young woman, but there was no spark, no inferno, until I feared the prospect of losing the rights Rep. Lewis’s generation fought so hard to secure.
History is a wheel. The same things happen again and again, and only the players are different. We stumble into the same mistakes because we don’t listen to those who came before us, those who saw the impending darkness of tyranny or lived the reality of brutal racism firsthand. I’ve tried to listen well in the last two years, but it’s so hard to know, in the moment, if you are helping the cause or hurting it. And it’s a cushy kind of activism when you never have to worry about losing your life. Does that make it less worthwhile? Or is that another thing for which to thank activists like John Lewis? Even in the semi-enlightened age of 2018, not everyone my color can protest without swift, sometimes violent repercussions. But many of us can. And that is a gift too.
Before he left for the airport, I thanked John Lewis for everything. He smiled and thanked me. I’m sure he hears so much of what I said from the thousands of people he meets every year. But I meant every unoriginal word. So much of what I have, so much of what I take for granted, was only available to me because of the sacrifices he and many others made. The ones who risked their lives and safety. The ones who did not make it to the promised land.
I wish I could have found a way to say all of this to him, and to promise that there are so many of us trying hard to continue the work that he started at 18. But words failed, and I could only say thank you.