The passing of U.S. Rep. and civil rights icon John Lewis is something every American must mark. This American hero must be remembered and honored by anyone who cares about the rights and freedoms of all Americans. As someone who began fighting for civil rights as a teenager and continued that fight until his death on July 17 at the age of 80, Lewis led a remarkable, but not an easy, life.
Learning in December, 2019, that he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer, he could have left Congress, where he represented Georgia’s 5th Congressional District for more than three decades, saying that he had paid his dues and that he deserved some rest. That he wanted to spend the time had left with family and friends. But that was not in his nature. He stayed in Congress to the very end, fighting not only for civil rights for Black Americans, but for everyone’s rights, especially in this time of COVID-19.
When children learn about George Washington and his honesty in admitting that he chopped down the cherry tree (if that even really happened) and about Abraham Lincoln and his freeing of the slaves, they also must learn about John Lewis, who nearly gave his life on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965 when he had his skull fractured by police during the Blood Sunday March for civil rights.
Children also must be told of how he worked with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the battle for voting and other rights for Black Americans. And of how he spent more than 30 years in the House of Representatives continuing the fight for freedom.
People of good conscience are honoring Lewis and his work. All but one: President Trump. Mentioning Trump’s name alongside Lewis’ may be considered sacrilegious because they are two completely different human beings. But as president, Trump must be called out for his lack of empathy for Lewis’ family, for his absence among those honoring Lewis and for his blatant bigotry. But that’s enough about Trump.
The nation now needs to memorialize Lewis by, first, renaming the Edmund Pettus Bridge after him. Then other structures, including schools and government buildings, should follow suit, all for the purpose of not letting his memory fade.
To truly honor, and learn from, Lewis, though, one must read his words. Here are some samples:
— When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.
— I want to see young people in America feel the spirit of the 1960s and find a way to get in the way. To find a way to get in trouble. Good trouble, necessary trouble.
— I say to people today, ‘You must be prepared if you believe in something. If you believe in something, you have to go for it. As individuals, we may not live to see the end.’
— Never give up. Never give in. Never become hostile… Hate is too big a burden to bear.
— If someone had told me in 1963 that one day I would be in Congress, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy. You don’t know what you’re talking about.’
— When I was a student, I studied philosophy and religion. I talked about being patient. Some people say I was too hopeful, too optimistic, but you have to be optimistic just in keeping with the philosophy of non-violence.
— Not one of us can rest, be happy, be at home, be at peace with ourselves, until we end hatred and division.
— Following the teaching of Gandhi and Thoreau, Dr. King, it set me on a path. And I never looked back.
— There are still forces in America that want to divide us along racial lines, religious lines, sex, class. But we’ve come too far; we’ve made too much progress to stop or to pull back. We must go forward. And I believe we will get there.
— Be hopeful. Be optimistic. Never lose that sense of hope.