Congressman John Lewis was a friend of mine for 40 years. I mourn the passing of my dear friend, who was 80.
In 1980, after moving to Atlanta, I became a part of the inner circle of the civil rights community there. Later, I became the director of budget for the City of Atlanta, having been appointed by former Ambassador and then Mayor of Atlanta Andrew Young. John Lewis was a newly elected member of the City Council and I, as a lieutenant for Mayor Young, had additional responsibilities to “whip” the City Council for the mayor. (A political “whip” in theory whips the members of a body into line, in this case in support of issues initiated or advocated by the mayor.)
So my initial perspectives on John Lewis first occurred in that capacity. But by at that time in his life, in 1980, John Lewis was a civil rights icon. In 1965, John was nearly beaten to death on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, during the first of three infamous marches from Selma to Montgomery. As a result, later in the year the awesome 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed. For the young readers, may I say, the Selma marches were peace protest marches, demanding change and reform, albeit for voting rights. A quick historical note: In 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a key part of the Voting Rights Act (Shelby v. Holder). “Deja vu all over again.” I remind you that John Lewis was the youngest and maybe the second most electric speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. He was 23 years old. Additionally, John Lewis tirelessly, and dangerously, worked in the Southern states to register African Americans to vote. John’s partner in these agonizing voter registration efforts mentioned above also was a very dear friend of mine, the renowned, late Julian Bond.
By the time John was on the Atlanta council, I had the occasionally impossible job of attempting to persuade him to cast his vote with Mayor Young, whom he loved. When John felt that something did not pass his test of what was righteous for the people, meaning no political maneuvers, no political deal, his response was a stern no. No, unless it adhered to John’s sense of what he felt was right, he would not vote with anyone, including the mayor. That made being the mayor’s whip a horrible job sometimes, but when we walked away, we always left with the highest respect for John Lewis. That was John Lewis as a councilman and then as a congressman. No Nancy Pelosi, nor any political giant, could sway John away from his personal principles. John never changed. He was the rock; he was the conscience of the Atlanta City Council and then the conscience of the U.S. House of Representatives for 33 years.
When I reflect on John Lewis, and my experiences with him, so many names pop up in my head. They include civil rights icon C.T. Vivian, who also died July 17, 88-year-old Andrew Young, my dear friend Coretta Scott King, and more. But when I think of John, I also think of Julian Bond.
By 1985, my friends John Lewis Julian Bond decided to run for Congress and it was against each other. Bond was hands down the favorite to win the race. While John was iconic and historic, Julian was charismatic, handsome, an eloquent speaker and extremely intelligent. So Preston Love Jr., who had just returned home from running Jesse Jackson’s presidential race in 1984, was the sought-after advisor by both campaigns. What a dilemma for me. I loved them both, but I chose Julian Bond. There were several other people in the race, which required a runoff. In the primary, Julian received the most votes. John Lewis won the race. I won an egg on my face. While John never let me forget that in the early days. He was always a man of such high character, he always continued to embrace our friendship: mine and Julian’s. It’s important to note that John Lewis was elected 22 times for that same seat until the day that he died.
My hope is that John Lewis’ life will be as a beacon to our young, because John spent his whole life fighting for change and reform and he said over and over, “never give up. It’s going to be tough, but never give up. And if you stay with it, you will win the fight.” So, I say, on behalf of John Lewis, to our young folks that I join in every way, their calls for change. I hope that they will follow John’s mantra, and never give up.
I caution to our young generation, as well as our older generations, don’t fail to see the leverage of registering and voting. I say boldly and strongly, as a veteran of the many years and cycles of racial disparities and lack of equity, that in November of this year, we all must vote. And when we do, we honor John Lewis, who was the first, and true to the very last. RIP.
Preston Love Jr. is a longtime Omaha civic engagement activist who also teaches black studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.