John Lewis and I at the Miami Book Fair 2013. Photo: Ashley Jones
Congressman John Lewis, a stalwart of social justice and a significant player in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, has died at the age of 80 after battling Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He was a hero, a legend, an icon.
He’s also someone I had the pleasure of meeting, allowing me to hear the story of his life in his own words.
While I was living in Miami in 2013, I interviewed Lewis before he visited the Miami Book Fair. He was promoting his graphic novel, March: Book One (the second book in the series became available in 2015 and the third in 2016). Days before his book signing, I interviewed him via phone for the Miami New Times, and of course, I was nervous. What was I going to ask an American legend? Naturally, I knew I had to interview him about his book, but how would I make the interview truly matter? How would I make it personal to both of us and not just keep it at the level of a standard promotional discussion?
Reading his graphic novel, of course, gave me the answer.
Lewis was born in 1940 in Troy, Alabama, part of the state’s “Black Belt.” The term is an unofficial pejorative for a portion of Alabama that is mainly Black, poor, and rural. But that term also comes with a lot of emotional ties for me. My great-aunt raised my mom in Greensboro, Alabama, a small town not too far from Troy. Many childhood memories include visiting my great-aunt–who was like a grandmother to me and my siblings–and my cousins in Greensboro. Rural Alabama is a place I know well. I would be able to reach Lewis in a way others might not because we both grew up with the Black Belt shaping our earliest memories.
During the interview, I was still a ball of nerves, hoping I wasn’t dull or weird. But it seems like my interview was a success. He was gracious and kind to me over the phone, telling me about his life and the lessons he learned. One of those lessons came from his time tending chickens on his parents’ farm.
“Growing up there on the farm as a young child with six brothers and three sisters [and a] wonderful mother and father, I fell in love with the responsibilities I had to take care of on the farm. One that I loved more than anything was raising the chickens,” he said during the interview, adding that the chickens taught him the power of patience. “They taught me hard work and they taught me not to give up–to be hopeful, to be optimistic.”
The chickens were also his first audience, to whom he preached. He probably didn’t realize it as a child, but he was teaching himself public speaking, a skill that would serve him well throughout his career as an activist and a representative in Congress.
During the interview, he was particularly poignant about the lessons he wanted to teach the next generations.
“It is my hope that young people are reading this book and be inspired to take action when they see that something’s not right, not fair, not just and stand up, speak out and be bold and not afraid,” he told me. “When they see someone put down because of their race, color, nationality, or because of their gender, then they have a moral obligation to find a way or make a way to get in the way.”
That commitment to what is right made him an inspiration to so many, long after his days with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), marching–and nearly dying–on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, immortalized in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. His unwavering commitment to what he called “good trouble,” his phrase for challenging and breaking inhumane laws and ideas, propelled him to civic service in Atlanta and, eventually, to the House of Representatives, where he has served since 1987.
When I finally met Lewis at the Miami Book Fair, I was excited and, again, nervous. It’s one thing to talk to Lewis over the phone, but it’s another to meet him in person and get my copy of March signed by him. But again, he was just as gracious and warm as he was on the phone, thanking me for taking the time to interview him and happily signing my copy.
I thought that would be the end of my run-ins with Lewis, but a year or two later, my father, who was working an event as a paramedic in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, called me to let me know that he met Lewis at the event and spoke to him. He told Lewis how I’d interviewed him, and incredibly, Lewis still remembered the interview, as clear as day. I wouldn’t expect someone as busy as him to remember me and our conversation. But he did. Even though I was worried about my performance that day, my dad’s message let me know that I’d left a better impression than I thought. Lewis’ actions had a significant impact on my life as a Black American–his service and activism have helped me live the life I do now. And yet, here I was, realizing that our small interview, our conversation we had together, had an impact on him.
America won’t be able to thank Lewis enough for his contributions and sacrifice. Black America, in particular, I included, will never be able to thank him enough. One way we can show our gratitude, though, is to commit to changing the name of the Edmund Pettis Bridge to the John Lewis Bridge. It’s the least we can do to recognize his efforts.
We can also commit ourselves to end racial discrimination and discrimination of all types in America. Lewis expanded his activism to include everyone who has been marginalized by society, including LGBT Americans, immigrants, DREAMers, and anyone else left to the outskirts of daily life.
His death should remind us that the greats of our time are also human beings and will pass away; it’s up to us who are still here to carry their mantle forward. With that knowledge, we need to take on Lewis’ fight as our own, promising to live up to the call to action that is “good trouble.” We must continue making good trouble–not just to honor him but also to keep the country moving in that forward motion. It’s marching on the forward path, after all, that always kept Lewis optimistic about the future.