John Lewis’ Long Goodbye: The Final Journey

John Lewis’ Long Goodbye: The Final Journey

Like many Americans, I’ve been profoundly moved by John Lewis’ long goodbye. He represented his community in Congress for 33 years and never ceased his pursuit of equality. He believed that ordinary people with extraordinary vision “can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble.”

His story is a retrospective of the civil rights movement

You can’t really tell Lewis’ story without its broader context–the brave men and women of the civil rights movement who fought and died for the right to ride busses or to sit down and eat at lunch counters. There was Dr. King, of course, but there were others. Ambassador Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, Reverend C.T. Vivian, Stokely Carmichael, Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson—there was a common brotherhood and always a strong faith that united them.

Lewis was 15 when he heard Martin Luther King Jr., and it changed the course of his life

Lewis was inspired by Dr. King’s talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence, that each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. In 1960, the lunch counter sit-ins began; they were fighting for the right to sit down and order an inexpensive meal. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), led by Stokely Carmichael, encouraged students to get involved in the civil rights movement. The Freedom Summer of 1964 was a crusade to register Black voters in Mississippi. Lewis was arrested 45 times during more than half a century fighting for civil rights. He was beaten unconscious in 1965 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where he and 600 peaceful protesters marched toward the batons of Alabama State Troopers.

Education became an important stepping stone

The son of sharecroppers, Lewis knew that there was more to life than picking other people’s cotton. He understood the importance of education, and received a BA in Religion and Philosophy from Fisk University, and he is a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville. He has been awarded more than 50 honorary degrees from prestigious colleges and universities throughout the United States, including Harvard. In 2010 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama.

At his funeral, three former Presidents and the Speaker of the House eloquently shared personal, emotional experiences of working with Lewis. President Clinton believed that Lewis had survived so many close calls “because he was here on a mission that was bigger than personal ambition.”

A capacity for great courage

John Lewis would have been delighted that a former president, a Black man, had delivered a eulogy that received a standing ovation. “He believed that in all of us, there exists the capacity for great courage,” Obama said, “that in all of us there is a longing to do what’s right, that in all of us there is a willingness to love all people, and to extend to them their God-given rights to dignity and respect.”

Now it is your turn to let freedom ring

After reading John Lewis final letter, it may be that we look back on Lewis’ lifelong activism as a bridge between the civil rights movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s and the global consciousness-raising that is today’s Black Lives Matter movement. “That is why I had to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza. I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”

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