Representative John Lewis carried bananas and water as he walked into Hillary Clinton’s Waterloo, Iowa, headquarters on the bitterly cold night before the 2016 caucus. He knew from experience that exhausted activists, campaign staff and volunteers needed fruit, hydration, and inspiration.
This wasn’t a normal “celebrity” appearance at a campaign office, though. Lewis mingled with the crowd for hugs, selfies, and private conversations before he spoke. He stayed and did the same after.
Waterloo is Iowa’s most multiracial city, with the highest proportion of Black voters—roughly 16 percent—in that overwhelmingly white state. Lewis bonded with everyone, but particularly with a Waterloo precinct captain (who later became the county Democratic Party chair), Vikki Brown, from Birmingham, Ala. At age 11 she joined the 1963 Children’s Crusade that answered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call from jail in that cruel, segregated city. Dogs leapt at them, and fire hoses scattered them in Kelly Ingraham Park, Brown recalled. Lewis got misty and grabbed her hands. “The first time I walked into that park, I cried,” he told her softly.
“We’re here to build the beloved community, and redeem the soul of America,” he told the crowd. “Hang in there, keep the faith, continue to work. Your children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren will be very proud of you. I really feel blessed to be here; you inspire me.”
We palpably felt that—that Lewis felt blessed to be with us, that we inspired him (“we” is something of an exaggeration; I was there as a journalist and also as the mother of a local Clinton staffer). I was literally blessed: Though it wasn’t on his schedule, he gave me a 20-minute interview. He was thrilled to learn about the film I was trying to make about the week in 1968 that his friend Harry Belafonte hosted The Tonight Show, featuring two men he loved and worked for, Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy, who would both be murdered just a few months after they appeared on that shining platform with Belafonte.
What struck me the first time I met Lewis, a year before, then again in Waterloo, and at (sadly too few) later meetings: He created time and space around everyone he spoke to. Everyone. The clock seemed to stop. In a crowded room, no one else was around. It was you and him. I remember how warm his hands felt, how his face beamed up at me (I’m 5’11” to his 5’4″). I remember his eyes looking to my eyes. And I also remember the shiny dent on his head inflicted by the state police in 1965 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Looking into his eyes, every time, I felt—I knew—we were in the “beloved community” he and King and Belafonte and so many others tried to create.
And that we will create, eventually, with Lewis’s blessing.
I felt that same warmth when I read Lewis’s op-ed in The New York Times the morning of his funeral. I think we all felt it: the sense that he was talking to us personally. Especially to young people:
“Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor.… I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me.… 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. 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.”
At his funeral on Thursday, at Dr. King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, which its leader, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, called “America’s freedom church,” three former presidents paid tribute. Warnock, running for a Georgia Senate seat this year, promoted bipartisan love for Lewis, calling him “the boy from Troy” and “the conscience of the Congress.”
Former president George W. Bush gave the best speech of his life in that pulpit. So did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Former president Bill Clinton, generally a good if digressive speaker, shared remarkable memories. Barack Obama called Lewis “a man of pure joy,” and while he said more profound things, that might just boil it down to what we all should remember.
“We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar to cast a ballot,” Obama added, “but even as we sit here there are those in power that are doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting.” Just hours earlier, Trump had suggested on Twitter that the November election be delayed because of the possibility—entirely undemonstrated—for fraud in voting by mail.
The star of the day might have been the Rev. James Lawson, 91, himself a young civil rights activist alongside Lewis back in the day, who denounced “plantation capitalism” to great applause. “We will not be quiet as long as women and children are the largest poverty group in our country,” Lawson said, channeling Lewis.
If you haven’t already, please read Lewis’s amazing memoir, Walking With the Wind, maybe the best civil rights autobiography of its time. I’m not going to grab it from my shelf; I’m just going to share two vivid images from memory (let’s hope I’m right): The night before the final 1965 march to Montgomery (they’d left Selma days before, their third try), Harry Belafonte, Leon Bibb, Joan Baez, and other stars danced on a stage made out of coffins—collected from black undertakers, the only wood that could be quickly put together. I both love that image and find it literally chilling. I will also always love a scene where Lewis, still a shy, short young man (we tried to recreate that in our documentary, but couldn’t find the footage), finds himself unexpectedly dancing with glamorous actress Shirley MacLaine. And I love the chapter where he meets his life’s love, Lillian Miles. How can Lewis be as great a writer as a leader? I’m a slacker, and so are you.
One of Lewis’s last acts was going to see the new Black Lives Matter Plaza, in Washington, D.C. But he always found his ways to protest, including, memorably, attending the Occupy Wall Street movement that spread to his hometown of Atlanta. I almost hate summoning this memory, but it was really the best of John Lewis: He was turned away by the young, lefty Atlanta crowd for being a Democratic officeholder (I saw similar things happen in my hometowns at the time, San Francisco and Oakland, sadly). I learned about it when Twitter exploded in fury on Lewis’s behalf. But Lewis accepted it.
He noted he hadn’t asked to speak, and he was happy to just observe. “It is the right time and the right place to be.… It is the will of the people. When I was young we did similar actions. It is grassroots democracy at its best. I think something good will come of the moment.”
I will admit: I used to literally stare at John Lewis to try to understand his drive and, mainly, his optimism. I don’t have it, naturally. But I will acquire it, whatever it takes, to rid this country of the president Lewis refused to honor with his presence at the inauguration. We all owe him no less.