Even as Georgia congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis accepted the 2016 Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center four years ago, the progress he and others had fought so hard to achieve in the ’60s seemed threatened.
It was two years after police had shot Michael Brown Jr., an unarmed Black teenager, in Ferguson, Mo., sparking protests and demonstrations. It had been mere months since the similar shooting of Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minn. And within two years, Philadelphia would face its own moment of racial reckoning — the 2018 arrests of two Black men at a Center City Starbucks, a scene many likened to the Jim Crow-era indignities that Lewis and his mentor, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had fought against.
Still, in the face of those troubling indications of just how far there was left to go in the fight for racial equality, Lewis, speaking to attendees at the Liberty Medal gala, saw reason for hope.
“There are some people that have said, ‘Nothing has changed,‘ ” he told the packed crowd that September night. “Come and walk in my shoes, and I will show you change.”
Lewis’ death Friday from pancreatic cancer at age 80 comes at yet another moment of racial reckoning for the city and the nation. But leaders from across the region said Saturday that it was the late congressman’s unrelenting belief that change could be achieved that continued to inspire a new generation of activists, politicians, and everyday citizens who are now rising to meet their historical moment.
“There was no cynicism in John Lewis; no hint of despair even in the darkest moments,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which filed suit this week on behalf of 13 Black West Philadelphia residents harmed during the police response to protests on May 31. “Instead, he showed up relentlessly with commitment and determination — but also love and joy and unwavering dedication to the principles of nonviolence.”
Tributes rolled in Saturday from Lewis’ colleagues in Congress, where he spent more than three decades representing Georgia’s Fifth District.
“He has inspired me for decades,” said U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Pa.), who served alongside Lewis on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. “He and so many others sacrificed so much for our right to vote.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) tweeted: “For 80 years he showed us how to truly live. ... May we be his legacy.”
And former U.S. Rep. Bob Brady recalled meeting the man he referred to during an interview Saturday as “my buddy.” Arriving in Washington in the 1980s, Brady walked straight up to his newly elected colleague, hand extended, and proclaimed, “You’re my idol.”
“Well, you’re my idol,” Brady remembered Lewis responding, with characteristic humility. “I’ve been reading up on Philadelphia, and there are good things going on there.”
Over the years, the two formed a bond, with Brady hosting Lewis on trips he made to the city. Though he liked to take in Philadelphia’s history, Brady said, Lewis much preferred just sitting down and chatting over coffee. “He was just a genuine class guy with everyone,” he said.
The son of an Alabama sharecropper, Lewis spent most of his life in the Deep South and Washington. But he made several visits to Pennsylvania and New Jersey over the years, leaving a trail of people inspired to keep up the fight against racial injustice in his wake.
“He was absolutely an inspiration to me and should be an inspiration to all those out there protesting today,” said former Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode.
Goode met Lewis before his election to Congress in 1986 as they worked together on civil rights causes in Atlanta. They would encounter each other a few times more, most recently at an event in 2018 to commemorate a speech King gave at St. Joseph’s University in 1967.
Lewis regaled students that day with his memories of his 1965 march alongside 600 protesters demanding voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. He likened the brutal police crackdown that greeted them — leaving 58 injured, Lewis among them — to the fight for more equitable policing practices that protesters continue to march for today.
“We talked about …. the fact that he could be a congressman and I could be mayor of the fourth largest city in America was a sign that progress had been made,” Goode said. “We ought to celebrate that even as we continue to fight for complete equality in this country.”
At a similar 2015 speech in Cherry Hill, Lewis told a group of local Phi Beta Sigma fraternity members that “each and every generation must play a role in ending racism” and continuing that struggle didn’t always mean grand gestures of protest.
He celebrated simple acts of progress, such as when he reached out to Ariell Johnson, owner of Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in Kensington, while in town for the 2016 Democratic National Convention. He wanted to showcase the Black-owned business that features the work of authors and artists of color and hosted a book signing for his graphic novel memoir March. At the time, Johnson credited the work of Lewis and others with making it possible for a woman like her to own a business like the one she runs.
“He stood on his principles over the years and never changed,” said Charles L. Blockson, founder of the Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University. “He was always forthright, and he was for real.”
Patrick Duff, a Haddon Heights activist, recalled being stunned when Lewis joined his effort to preserve a Camden home where King once stayed while studying at Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, Delaware County. The congressman threw his name behind the cause and personally attended a rally outside the home in 2016.
But even amid the crowd of more than 100 local officials and dignitaries that huddled under a tent that day, Lewis fixated on a woman hovering at its edges, pushing a stroller and wearing a T-shirt printed with a young girl’s face, Duff recalled.
Lewis asked who she was. Duff explained that the girl on the T-shirt was the woman’s 8-year-old, who had been fatally struck by a stray bullet just blocks away from the rally site only days before.
“I’m not kidding,” Duff said Saturday. “He beelined straight for this girl. He held her hand, he hugged her, he cried with her while, no offense, all these other politicians were just standing stiff. When she was getting ready to leave, he said, ‘Young lady, I’d like you to stay with me for the entire day.’ ”
It was Lewis’ combination of sincere interest in the individuals he met combined with the moral authority he had earned on larger societal issues that contributed to his national stature, said the Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor at Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church in Society Hill.
Tyler said he couldn’t help but consider Lewis’ loss so soon after other civil rights icons, like C.T. Vivian who also died Friday, within the context of the protests that have gripped cities across the country in recent months.
“God is trying to tell us something: The fight for freedom and the struggle to be equal is not something that is one and done,” he said. “Each generation has to decide whether they will be ‘a John Lewis’ or whether they’ll hide in the shadows waiting for the next to come along and fight.”
The late congressman was committed to being “a John Lewis” until the end.
Brady last spoke to his former colleague a month ago. By then, he said, Lewis was mostly confined to a wheelchair. His cancer had taken a noticeable toll on his health.
And yet, Brady recalled him saying: “I still got my heart. I’ve got a lion heart.”