Justice  /  Obituary

The Essential and Enduring Strength of John Lewis

What the late civil-rights leader and congressman taught the nation.

By the time John Lewis made his exit from this realm, on Friday, his life had been bound so tightly and for so long to the mythos of the movement for democracy in America that it was difficult to separate him from it. For this reason, a friend who texted me “John Lewis is gone, what are we going to do now?” was not only reacting to grief but expressing a real and common sentiment. Lewis, who spoke at the March on Washington, chaired the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and served seventeen terms in Congress, representing Georgia’s Fifth District, succumbed to pancreatic cancer, a ruthless and efficient plague whose diagnosis is fatal around ninety-five per cent of the time. When he revealed his condition, last December, hope persisted despite those odds, in part because, for many people, the thought of confronting the reactionary, racist, and antidemocratic realities of the Trump era without one of the nation’s most potent symbols of decency was too difficult to countenance.

Those contrasts were not merely hypothetical. In 2017, when President Trump announced that he would attend the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, Lewis said that he would not. The then White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, seemed to accuse Lewis of failing to show proper respect for the movement. Months earlier, Trump had attacked the Fifth District as “crime-infested” and suggested that the blame lay with Lewis. I wrote at the time that Trump’s disdain for Lewis betrayed a theme: having never grasped the concept of sacrifice, the President is contemptuous of people whose lives have been defined by it. No criticism that Lewis issued about Trump was as strong an indictment as the simple facts of his life: born to Alabama sharecroppers, stalwart of SNCC, leader, exemplar of humility.

The civil-rights movement is best understood as a collaboration between two groups of people: the martyrs who died for the cause, and the stalwarts who were tasked with living for it. The first group is most commonly associated with Martin Luther King, Jr., whose death, at the hands of an assassin, cleaved an entire section of American history into before and after. But a different, strange, and particular burden befell the second group, the people who survived the manifold dangers of Albany, Anniston, Jackson, and Little Rock, and were then witness to the trials of crack and AIDS, violence, and mass incarceration. They were tasked with institutionalizing and defending the movement’s hard-won gains against the slow accretion of power by people who hoped to remake the present in the image of the past. Lewis, like his peers Andrew Young, Marion Barry, and Eleanor Holmes Norton, transitioned into elected office as the post from which he would undertake this work. It was not an easy undertaking.