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Mfume reflects on the life of John Lewis on the day of his funeral | COMMENTARY

A military honor guard moved the casket of Rep. John Lewis into Ebenezer Baptist Church for his funeral Thursday in Atlanta. Lewis, who carried the struggle against racial discrimination from the Southern battlegrounds of the 1960s to the halls of Congress, died Friday, July 17.
A military honor guard moved the casket of Rep. John Lewis into Ebenezer Baptist Church for his funeral Thursday in Atlanta. Lewis, who carried the struggle against racial discrimination from the Southern battlegrounds of the 1960s to the halls of Congress, died Friday, July 17. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

With the passing of Rep. John Lewis, America has lost one of its greatest heroes and I have lost an old and dear friend. The passion for equality that he carried with him throughout his life never waned, and his untiring quest for justice never faltered. With a big heart for compassion John, like his mentor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was unawed by opinion, unseduced by flattery and undismayed by disaster.

Birthed in the era of Jim Crow and vile segregation he defied the limitedness of others expectations. Knowing that politics changes people, he decided to change politics, and did he ever. While his victories, accomplishments and honors are far too numerous to remember or mention, it is important to know that John just wanted to be remembered as a simple man with a fire in his belly for justice.

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He never sought any type of hero status for the work he did. In fact, the John Lewis I knew sought just the opposite. He was always content to have others lauded and celebrated as long as the goals of the struggle were achieved. That is a rare demeanor in a world where so many seek just the opposite, but that was John. Perhaps, more importantly was his courage in the face of fire and his willingness to suffer nonviolently in the heyday of the civil rights movement when confronted with the viciousness of segregationists who controlled the power and never hesitated to use it.

Born as the son of sharecroppers in 1940 just outside of Troy, Alabama, John Lewis grew up on a small farm and attended segregated schools. What many don’t know is that while growing up he was inspired by the activism of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and the determination to walk rather than ride on the back of the bus. From his earliest recollection as a teenager hearing Dr. King on a transistor radio, John knew there was something different about the time in which he was living and something remarkably noble and different about the people who were standing up for justice in that time. Dr. King’s words and exhortations were to find their way from that small radio speaker into the heart and soul of what would forever prove to be the core of everything that John Lewis would come to be.

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In 1961, he volunteered to participate in the Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. He was routinely beaten and bloodied by white segregationists who would attack him and others with mob violence. Thus, John began his long and well-documented history of being arrested at least 45 times for daring to challenge the injustice of Jim Crow and the vile de facto segregation of the era and other civil rights issues more recently. While many adopted nonviolence as a tactic, John adopted it as a way of life.

In 1963, he was named one of the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement. At the age of 23, he was an architect of and a keynote speaker at the historic March on Washington in August of that year.

From 1963 to 1966 he served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and was largely responsible for organizing student sit-ins aimed at furthering the civil rights movement. John’s famous “Bloody Sunday” encounter on the Edmund Pettus Bridge revealed the cruelty of the segregated South and helped to bring about passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1977, John Lewis was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to direct more than 250,000 volunteers of the federal agency ACTION across the U.S., and in 1981 he was elected to the Atlanta City Council.

In November 1986 John won election to the House of Representatives. Two months later I stood with him when we both took our oath of office and were sworn in together as members and classmates of the 100th Congress. Getting to know him and his late wife Lillian was to give me an unearned and personal glimpse into the heart and soul of John Lewis, such that 33 years later I am still awed by the simple eloquence of his example.

As I flew to Atlanta for John’s funeral service, I couldn’t help but to think how he continued even in death to remind us of the difference between symbolism and substance. No one ever asked about what kind of car he drove or what brand of suit he wore. It never mattered, because they knew what he was made of.

In an age where everyone seems to be searching for the next great thing, isn’t it odd that the greatness of John Lewis was with us all along. We needed only to look as far as the nearest movement for social justice to find it.

Rep. Kweisi Mfume (mfume.house.gov/contact) represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District.

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