“Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to March on Washington?” — John Lewis
We lost John Lewis, a civil rights icon, though it wasn’t unexpected since the Georgia congressman was facing stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He was 80. Lewis was praised by both houses on both sides of the aisle. The flags have been lowered to half-staff.
John Lewis helped organize the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, that became memorable for the stirring speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream.” John Lewis was also a featured speaker, but when the other organizers saw a copy of his speech, it was considered too inflammatory. Here is a sample:
“The time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We shall pursue our own scorched earth policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground — nonviolently.” Lewis agreed to edit that passage to: “We will march through the South, but we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today.”
Though edited to be less confrontational, the speech worked, and the massive crowd listened. New Yorker editor David Remnick said, “Certainly King’s speech was the most eloquent that day. But the most ferocious was John Lewis’s.”
On March 7, 1965, John Lewis and others marched across the Edmund Pettus bridge to demand voting rights at the state capital in Montgomery. They walked into a phalanx of state troopers using tear gas, clubs and dogs. It became known as “Bloody Sunday.” (A second march on March 21 was successful.) The bridge, named after a Confederate general and a member of the Ku Klux Klan, is now a National Historic Landmark. There is a movement to change the name to John Lewis Bridge.
The film of that confrontation between the marchers and troopers remains shocking. John Lewis was brutally attacked and suffered a fractured skull. Think about that for a moment. How many of our leaders and politicians, today, would risk marching toward a violent confrontation?
Former President Barack Obama praised Lewis for his “gentleness and humility” and said the Georgia congressman lived to see his legacy play out before him in a “meaningful, remarkable way.”
It is not often that a leader can see the actual results of his or her goals and achievements. Obama continued with these thoughtful and poignant remarks:
“He loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise. And through the decades, he not only gave all of himself to the cause of freedom and justice, but inspired generations that followed to try to live up to his example…and it’s because he saw the best in all of us that he will continue, even in his passing, to serve as a beacon in that long journey towards a more perfect union.”
Unfortunately, we are still a long way from that “more perfect union.”
On the 50th anniversary of the march in 2015, President Obama and the First Family joined thousands of Americans at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to honor the commitment and bravery of the original marchers who sustained injuries on that very site. One of those marchers was John Lewis locking hands with President Obama. Former President George W. Bush also marched, even though Lewis did not attend his inauguration.
Joe Biden and his family were asked their feelings about John Lewis:
“It is rare to meet and befriend our heroes,” they said in a statement. “John was that hero for so many people of every race and station, including us. He absorbed the force of human nature’s cruelty during the course of his life, and the only thing that could finally stop him was cancer. But he was not bitter.”
That last sentence is key. John Lewis was not bitter. He had compassion and forgiveness, even for those who despised him. Let us hope that the legacy of John Lewis survives these bitter and often frightening times intensified by the pandemic. Here is the closing of his Washington address: “We must say wake up America, wake up! For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.”
Indeed. The battle continues. One day, the gap between what the Constitution promises and reality will finally close.
Michael Corrigan of Pocatello is a San Francisco native and a retired Idaho State University English and speech communication instructor. He studied screenwriting at the American Film Institute and has authored seven books, many about the Irish American experience.