How remarkable was the 80-year life of civil-rights-fighter-turned-congressman John Lewis, who lost his battle against cancer late Friday night? So great that virtually everything in this edition of The Will Bunch Newsletter will have some Lewis connection. Did the John Lewis fan in your life forward you this email? Sign up to receive this newsletter weekly at inquirer.com/bunch, and join the crusade.
If you had asked me who I believed was the greatest living American, I would have blurted out my answer in less than a second ... right up until just before midnight on Friday. That’s when the world learned the inevitable yet still heartbreaking news that Rep. John Lewis had lost his brief battle against Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
“I have been in some kind of fight – for freedom, equality, basic human rights – for nearly my entire life,” Lewis said just six short months ago when he announced that he’d wage war against his cancer with the same ferocity. The quote was pure Lewis, and it laid bare the two qualities — courage and persistence — that caused even a cynic like me to admire him without a nanosecond of hesitation.
Lewis was a boxer who won because he could take a punch. He was dumped on in Nashville lunch counters, beaten bloody in a Montgomery bus terminal, arrested some 40 times and famously clubbed on the far side of Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, but he never gave up and never gave in to the pain — or declared victory to walk away.
By that I mean it would have been easy for Lewis to either cash in or slow down at age 25 when his bravery at Selma sparked the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but instead he clawed his way to Congress and spent the last 34 years of his life there — pushing not just for enhanced civil rights but against war and poverty, and doing so with good humor and grace.
No wonder, then, the flood of tributes and condolences — not just from his Democratic allies and civil rights survivors but from Republicans who probably wouldn’t even have voted with Lewis on renaming a post office. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — who presumably heard Lewis’ famous speech when he attended the 1963 March on Washington — said “our great nation’s history has only bent towards justice because great men like John Lewis took it upon themselves to help bend it.” Never mind that McConnell has made his life’s work trying to unbend everything that Lewis ever accomplished.
Like you, I’m sick of the hypocrisy. You can’t do justice to man like Lewis with mere words, only deeds. Here are five ways to honor his legacy (in reverse order).
OK, this is the lowest hanging fruit, but please strip the name of Pettus — who was a Grand Wizard in the Alabama KKK because of course he was — off the damn bridge in Selma and rename it for the man who crossed the river to make America better. Some say naming a monument for Lewis gives the powers-that-be an excuse not to carry out his bigger visions — but why not do all of the things?
With so much focus on Lewis’ signature issue of voting rights, people forget that he fought for a broader humanity. In Congress, he opposed the first and second Iraq Wars and came to regret his post 9/11 vote for the endless terror war (and in 2002 he sponsored a bill to allow conscientious objectors to avoid paying taxes for the military). As his mentor Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and “anywhere” includes places like Afghanistan.
Everyone remembers the first sit-in of Lewis’ career in Nashville in 1960, but fewer recall the last one which came in 2016 and took place on the floor of the House, where he and several colleagues were so fed up at the GOP’s refusal to advance a background-check bill — even after the slaughter of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando — that they staged a 26-hour protest. Let’s finish that work.
Resist the natural low ebb of enthusiasm after weeks of 2020′s electrifying coast-to-coast protests. Stay strong by remembering what Lewis said before voting last year for President Trump’s impeachment: “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?‘”
The post-Selma law was his crowning achievement — as a young reporter in the 1980s covering Birmingham’s first black mayor, I saw the changes first-hand — and so its 21st Century unraveling by a right-wing Supreme Court and an obstructionist GOP Congress has been appalling. McConnell is bottling up the bill that would restore the gutted law ahead of the 2020 election. It’s time for Republicans to help bend that arc of the moral universe, or get out of the way.
The passing of the last living speaker from the 1963 March on Washington was described as the end of an era by many commentators, but in fact some legends from the peak years of the civil rights movement (1960-65) still walk among us. We should cherish this list that includes, remarkably, Lewis’ teacher, the brilliant non-violence strategist Rev. James Lawson (he’s 91), his sit-in and Selma comrade Diane Nash (82), Mississippi Summer’s fearless Bob Moses (85), and MLK’s close lieutenant Andrew Young (88).
That list got me thinking — and I’d like your help. Who, now, is the greatest living American?
Surely it can’t be a politician (Barack Obama?) but then is it a modern-day explorer such as astronaut Buzz Aldrin or test pilot Chuck Yeager? An artist such as Bob Dylan or Joan Didion? An athlete like Hank Aaron, or an entrepreneur (God, no) such as Bill Gates? Is it another trailblazer like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or someone completely outside the box?
Send your answers to email@example.com, and I’ll share some of the best responses next week.