John Lewis, who I had the chance to meet once in the halls of Congress, liked to tell a story about a stormy day at his aunt Sevena’s house when he was a young boy.
His mother would gather her children around her when it thundered and tell John it was the sound of God doing his work.
“I’d watched trees actually explode when a bolt of lightning struck them, the sap inside rising to an instant boil,” he wrote in his memoir.
On this particular Alabama Saturday, he would recount, his mother wasn’t around when the storm hit and all the children crowded into aunt Sevena’s small house. As the wind howled outside, the house began to sway. The plank flooring beneath them started to bend and a corner of the room began to lift up. “The storm was pulling the house toward the sky. With us in it,” he’d say.
His aunt told all the children to line up and clasp hands, and then had them walk toward the corner of the room that was rising. Then they walked back to the opposite corner as it began to rise.
“And so it went, back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.”
Lewis said that it often struck him during his long life fighting for civil rights that our society is not unlike the children in that house.
“That is America to me — not just the movement for civil rights, but the endless struggle to respond with decency, dignity and a sense of brotherhood to all the challenges that face us as a nation, as a whole,” he wrote in his memoir.
Lewis was laid to rest this past week just as another storm has been rocking the American house. The racial reckoning and prolonged protests that have exploded since the death of George Floyd have actually become larger and more widespread than any during the civil rights movement of the Sixties that Lewis helped lead.
Lewis was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, youngest person to speak at the March on Washington when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. And he had his skull cracked by Alabama state troopers as he marched across the bridge at Selma.
Much as Floyd’s death has pricked America’s conscience, so did Lewis’ beating on that bridge. It was just five months later that the landmark Voting Rights Act prohibiting racial discrimination in voting was signed into law.
Let’s hope Lewis’ death is a reminder to the protesters and police in all our cities that Lewis became revered — and successful — by staying true to a philosophy of nonviolence he learned from the Rev. James Lawson in 1959.
A young reporter, David Halberstam, once wrote about the power of Lewis’ approach during a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Nashville. “The protests had been conducted with exceptional dignity, and gradually one image had come to prevail — that of elegant, courteous young black people holding to their Gandhian principles, seeking the most elemental of rights, while being assaulted by young white hoodlums who beat them up and on occasion extinguished cigarettes on their bodies.”
Lewis went on to serve in Congress for 34 years, hewing always to his principles and harnessing his own history to become the person politicians on both sides of the aisle came to call “the conscience of Congress.”
Lewis said his life was always guided by a beacon he called the Beloved Community. If I understand it right, the concept essentially refers to people of conscience who refuse to leave the house, even when it feels like the house is flying apart
John Lewis wanted to make sure his cause, and loving approach to that cause, lived on after his death.
In an essay he asked be published on the day of his funeral, Lewis addressed our younger generations, saying, “Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”
“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,” he wrote. “So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”