What John Lewis Means to Me
When I think about John Lewis, I think about time.
I don’t mean time in the sense of it passing quickly like a speeding bullet or passing slowly like paint drying. When I think of John Lewis, I think of time in the sense of its steadiness, its tirelessness, its perpetual forward motion. Time does what it does, rain or shine, day or night, like clockwork because it is…clockwork.
While Rosa Parks embodied so much the what and where of the Civil Rights Movement in one simple yet strategic act and both Malcolm X and MLK spoke powerfully to the why and the who of the struggle, John Lewis is the when, the clockwork my mind associates with the Civil Rights Movement, and America’s still-in-progress internal battle with racial equality and equity.
Eight decades in total, John Lewis — born to sharecropping parents in Alabama, beaten in Selma, revered in Washington, D.C. — had a lifetime that truly reflected America’s anything-but-inevitable and slow-yet-forward motion of racial equality from Jim Crow laws that segregated the South and codified racism for decades to America’s first Black president with Barack Obama thanking him on inauguration day in 2008 to the Black Lives Matter leaders who’ve grabbed the mantle of Black civil rights leadership in recent years following the unwarranted, inhumane, immoral and unjustified deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, whose killers (Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison and Myles Cosgrove) remain free today.
As for all things, people like to control time rather than acknowledge it, so John Lewis’ story has been controlled and manipulated in such a way as to abbreviate the impact of his time with us, which ultimately disables us from really learning all the lessons his lifetime provides us. That’s why John Lewis makes me think of time. Because his time may be highlighted by his work as the first chairman of SNCC in the 1960s and his legacy of living to see a Black man elected President in 2008 and his leadership of a march on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma made into a major motion picture in 2014, but there are entire decades in between that account for just as much if not more of his time serving as the clockwork of Black Americans’ fight for equality in this country.
The clockwork of John Lewis goes far beyond Bloody Sunday and the March on Washington, when as a 20-something, he was the youngest member of the “Big Six” Civil Rights leaders. The clockwork of John Lewis goes far beyond the Presidential Medal of Freedom he was awarded by Barack Obama in 2011. The clockwork of John Lewis that I have thought most about over the past few days, and hope to glean lessons from, are his middle decades — the years between 1968 to 2008 when John Lewis leaned into the less-publicized, but equally exhausting work of making a meaningful difference in millions of Black lives as a political leader in Washington, in Atlanta, and in an America that had yet to have a Barack Obama to hold up as proof of the United States’ undying belief in itself and limitless possibilities for all Americans regardless of color or creed.
It was during these middle decades, as a 30-something, as a 40-something, as a 50-something, as a 60-something, that I am certain John Lewis had numerous encounters with a much more powerful weapon than the ones those white men at the other end of the Edmund Pettis Bridge wielded or any weapon Donald Trump’s Administration and Mitch McConnell wields in power today. This weapon is one that attacks the very hope and faith that empowers activists, engages citizens and engulfs a nation toward progress.
I imagine that at various points during these decades, John Lewis’ biggest battle was against indifference. The kind of indifference that occured in the 1970s years after Martin and Malcolm were no longer around to shape the conversation from voting rights and equality to fair housing and equity. The indifference that transpired during the Reagan Administration in the ’80s when the crack cocaine epidemic impacted Black communities and the nation’s collective response was a call for law and order rather than the type of love and compassion expressed toward white communities impacted by opiods in recent years. The indifference that accompanied the ’90s as America’s attention centered on scandals — be it O.J. Simpson, Princess Diana’s divorce and death or the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair. The indifference about Black lives that resulted in federal catastrophe and global embarrassment when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans in 2005.
I am certain that in those years — after the assassinations of Dr. King and years before the rise of Barack Obama and Black Lives Matter — that John Lewis’ role as the clockwork of the Civil Rights Movement was made much more difficult and disheartening. After all, if your lifetime seems to represent the when of America’s progress with racial equality, how can the concept of time feel inspiring when the progress you seek appears to extend so far beyond your lifetime? How can the when feel anything but lifetimes away when, for so many years, America — particularly those indifferent moderate whites and fellow members of Congress — appear unwilling to do the work associated with empathizing with and understanding the who (Black lives), acknowledging and eradicating the why (racism and racial inequality), and figuring out the how (voting and laws)?
I imagine, in those middle decades, John Lewis often grew weary of his role as the timekeeper for Black America, but I also recognize that John Lewis’ legacy is what it is because — like time itself — he kept going, kept fighting, kept leading, minute after minute, hour after hour. He was the clockwork of America’s Civil Rights struggle until others arrived to take up his fight. And, by the looks of it, they too, no we too, have arrived right on time to help save America’s soul.
Our movement for racial equality and equity, for civil and voting rights, for justice, for an equal opportunity to pursue life, liberty and happiness in America, is anything but inevitable. However, our purpose, persistence, perseverance and passion can and must be perpetual. John Lewis’ lifetime teaches me and should teach all of us that this perpetual forward motion does not need to be inevitable in any single moment in time, but that with tireless effort and diligent work, we too can see progress in our lifetimes and leave a legacy of positive change.
On March 7, 1965, John Lewis and his fellow marchers did not make it to the other side of the bridge in Selma, but his leadership in those middle decades following “Bloody Sunday” and his perpetual forward motion towards equality and equity for Black Americans never ceased or tired. Instead, his actions helped to reduce the indifference of millions of Americans and kept America’s soul moving forward at times when so many were lied to and led to believe the only forward progress this country needs to succeed is measured in GDP.
Much like The Honorable John Lewis, our responsibility as activists, as citizens and as leaders today, be it with our words, our votes or our collective action and protests, is to do the same. To keep America’s soul moving forward despite the indifference of far too many in this country, and to perpetually and tirelessly embody the clockwork of John Lewis, standing on the shoulders of this courageous giant to create an America in harmony with its founding purpose.