John Lewis: Crossing the Bridge To Bend Arc of Justice

By Jamie Stiehm

July 29, 2020 5 min read

Washington — Rep. John Robert Lewis of Georgia was living proof that nonviolent resistance is not for the faint of heart. Short and stocky, he carried scars of a fractured skull, from billy club blows on a bridge in Selma, Alabama — scars visible to the multitudes he met. He was 25 back in 1965.

The story of those scars is told in his memoir, "Walking With the Wind." As a student, Lewis was the youngest in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s circle of civil rights leaders. He became the youngest speaker at the March on Washington.

Lewis told me not long ago he was the last one living.

Now his passing is "a death in the family," a saddened House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said at the Capitol rotunda ceremony. The same age, she heard Lewis speak rousingly that summer day, when King delivered his "I Have a Dream" vision before the world's eyes. President John F. Kennedy watched from the White House, amazed.

Nonviolence shaped the "beloved community," an idea Lewis taught us.

The champion, who led a march straight into the storm of helmeted Alabama state troopers that "Bloody Sunday," is gone at 80. He lies in state here at the Capitol, resting on the Lincoln coffin catafalque. It's the first time an American of color has been so honored.

The loss of a beloved hero falls at a hurting hour of history.

As Lewis lies peacefully in state, a swirl of serious chaos in Congress charges the air, flying over his body from both sides of the rotunda. He left us at a time of reckoning and fear.

In the throes of a pandemic and an uneven president, we're in an inescapable, epic health crisis. But that's not all anymore. We're facing an economic crisis and a breakdown in governance. Three crises equal a calamity.

"We are on the precipice of several cliffs," Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said.

The House and Senate might as well declare war over a coronavirus relief package. They're far apart as time ticks by. Pelosi declared Congress better not go home until they find common ground on a rescue bill.

Oddly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., can't unify his team of 53 Republicans. Some Dickensian orphanage hardliners oppose any more aid, while Pelosi talks trillions for COVID-19 testing, rent, food and unemployment benefits of $600 weekly. Republicans say $600 discourages working.

The "conscience of Congress," who defeated his best friend, Julian Bond, in the movement, was in a better place.

In a graceful tribute to Lewis, McConnell, 78, said, "It is John who is bringing greater honor to us, to this Capitol, with his presence one final time."

The rose- and flag-draped coffin was placed on the east front steps Tuesday for the public, a stone's throw from where Abraham Lincoln gave his inaugural addresses.

Lewis' life journey started as the son of cotton sharecroppers, a boy who preached to his chickens.

The Congressional Black Caucus gave floor elegies. One said Lewis was named for John, the youngest disciple of Jesus. King called Lewis "the boy from Troy," his Alabama hometown.

Lewis was with Bobby Kennedy the April night King was murdered in 1968. Two months later, moments before Kennedy met his tragic fate, Lewis was with the New York senator as he joyously won the California presidential primary. The cruel year ended on a note of hope: Martin's father, "Daddy" King, presided at Lewis' wedding.

Lewis felt his life, arrests and all, showed a "spirit of history."

King directed that Lewis co-lead the Selma protest march of 600 people. Lewis and Hosea Williams started the "rhythm of marching feet." Trouble ahead, they joked about jumping in the river 100 feet below, but neither could swim. They stood still in front of Alabama troopers. Then the beating began.

The arc of the moral universe — King's lexicon — connects these early events to here and now, with Lewis' witness. Rising with the sun, as always, Lewis visited Washington's Black Lives Matter street art in the wake of June protests against police brutality. His last act.

March on, John, forever young.

Jamie Stiehm can be reached at JamieStiehm.com. To read her weekly column and find out more about Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, please visit creators.com.

Photo credit: Olichel at Pixabay

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