I was only 20 years old when I had the chance to interview Representative John Lewis.
I was an intern at Time, Inc. Books and we were working on a book in honor of the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death.
I was supposed to obtain celebrity quotes for a section of the book. All of the other celebrities sent PR-approved statements via email. But Mr. Lewis wanted to speak via phone.
Due to the American education system’s failure to adequately teach us about the civil rights movement, I had no idea who he was.
I was terrified to interview him but he immediately made me feel at ease. He told me stories of his time marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma, and about the time he met JFK for the first time in the Oval Office. He told me about the realities of fighting for the cause — no sugarcoating. But he also had only the kindest and most heartfelt things to say about both JFK and MLK Jr., two men he clearly had the utmost admiration for.
His passion was palpable. And despite being a civil rights activist for decades (and decades), it was clear that he was not done fighting, not even close.
I learned more in those 45 minutes than I did in an entire year of American History class.
It shouldn’t have been Mr. Lewis’ job to educate me and yet he did so freely and without hesitation.
It took me years to truly understand the incredible man he was and to learn about all the things he did for this country. To learn that he was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders in 1961; that he was one of the “Big Six” who organized the March on Washington (at only 23 years old, nonetheless); and that he led the march that would later become known as “Bloody Sunday,” where he suffered a skull fracture at the hands of the police.
And that merely scratches the surface of his incredible fearlessness and leadership. It doesn’t even include all the things he did as a Congressman, where he loudly criticized President Bush and the Iraq War, organized a 26-hour sit-in demanding a vote on gun safety legislation, and fought to extend the Civil Rights Act to include the prohibition of discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
In his 60+ years as an activist, he never once wavered, never once compromised in his morals. Even as a politician, he never “played the game” like most other politicians do, desperate to stay in power no matter what they have to give up (ahem, Mitch McConnell).
Mr. Lewis never forgot who he was and what he was there to do. He did right by his constituents at every turn, he did right by his country.
During the House’s impeachment proceedings of Trump in 2019, Mr. Lewis said,
“When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’ For some, this vote may be hard. But we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.”
This pretty much sums up Mr. Lewis’ entire ethos in a nutshell.
Rep. John Lewis needs to be taught in every American high school curriculum. No student should graduate without knowing his name, knowing what he did for this country.
We are so fortunate to have a man like this in our lifetime. And I will forever be grateful for the 45 minutes of his time that he so generously gave me.
Rest in Power, John Lewis.