By Jeremiah Cahill
Currently, there’s a bill in the United States Senate, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. This proposed legislation would restore parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the United States Supreme Court a few years ago.
I wish our U.S. senators had the strength and good sense to pass this legislation. John Lewis, of all people, deserves to be honored by protecting the right to vote.
Many of you know the outlines of his life as a civil rights pioneer. Not only did he famously have his skull fractured by an Alabama state trooper’s club at the bridge outside Selma. He had been in most major civil rights actions in the years leading up to the transformative Voting Rights Act. Lunchroom sit-ins in Nashville. Freedom Rides on interstate busses across the South. Enduring almost unimaginable beatings, jail time, and other indignities.
Judy Woodruff, the host of the PBS Newshour, described Lewis shortly after his death in July 2020:
“I first interviewed John Lewis in 1971 in Atlanta when he was director of the Voter Education Project. He was in his early 30s but was already a hero of the civil rights movement. I remember being struck by the contrast between his burning determination to make a difference, and that polite, soft-spoken demeanor.”
Her recollections are amplified by one of Lewis’ fellow participants in the 1960s Freedom Rides, recounting the ever-present threats of violence and death as they protested segregated travel:
“John Lewis simply did not posture. He made his decision, he chose his course, he accepted the consequences because he had decided on a greater purpose for his life. That was his great strength. It was impossible to separate religion from politics in his philosophy. If they (the Freedom Riders) did not accept the idea of death, then they could not move ahead.” (From David Halberstam, The Children)
Recalling John Lewis takes me back to an early 1980s encounter in Wisconsin. I was invited to a presentation from the newly chartered National Cooperative Bank. The event was held on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, with about a hundred people attending. The keynote speaker would be the woman who was then Co-op Bank president. With her was John Lewis, serving as the bank’s community affairs director before being elected to Congress in 1986.
I entered the Memorial Union that morning as a crowd was gathering, getting coffee and sweet rolls, and socializing prior to the morning program. We were a lily-White mid-west co-op crowd—professionals, comfortable with each other, chatting and renewing contacts. There was only one Black person in the room—standing alone. I’d seen John Lewis’s name in the promotional materials and quickly recognized him.
I wasn’t about to waste that moment. I walked over, introduced myself, and said something along the lines of “I know your name from the civil rights movement, Mr. Lewis. I was in Selma just a few weeks after your trouble on the bridge.”
Talk about an instant connection! His face lit up with a smile, and we were joined in conversation.
After so many years, I can’t remember exactly what we talked about. Probably reflections on Alabama and the importance of those direct actions. He was warm and gracious—clearly pleased that the two of us had met over coffee. But time was short, and soon we were called to begin the program. We shook hands, voiced our mutual appreciation, and said goodbye.
Perhaps John was conducting a workshop later in the day, but I didn’t see him again. I was simply left with a memory that, over the years, has caused me to appreciate him more fully.
John Lewis was devoted to the principles of justice and equality. He was a clear-eyed practitioner of nonviolence—a man who put love into action. He saw in everyone the potential for growth, for change, and for redemption.
One such example involves a former Ku Klux Klan member who attacked the Freedom Riders at a South Carolina bus station in 1961. Lewis and another rider were seriously beaten. Late in his life, Elwin Wilson, the former Klansman, sought out his victim—the man he had bloodied—in order to seek his forgiveness. He discovered that man was Georgia Congressman John Lewis. Wilson traveled to Washington, met with Lewis, and apologized for his actions. Lewis welcomed him, heard him out, and without hesitation forgave him. The two men became friends and later made appearances together.
The stunning Freedom Riders 50th Anniversary special with Oprah Winfrey includes a four-minute interview with Lewis and Wilson, (18 minutes into the show.)
Again, Judy Woodruff says it best. “John Lewis defined what it meant to be courageous, and was truly one of the greatest people I’ve ever known.”
His legacy endures as a beacon, lighting the way forward. For activists or citizens simply yearning for a stable, democratic nation, his love and determination live on.
John, thanks for those few minutes we shared. You’re with me all the way!
© 2022 Jeremiah Cahill
Jeremiah Cahill, Madison Wisconsin, recalls “I was 18 when I wandered into the civil rights movement in 1965, assisting in small ways in Selma, Montgomery and, Camden, Alabama. My experiences there changed me and helped shape the rest of my life.”