In Honor of Rep. John Lewis: Reflecting on My (Very) Brief Moment With the Civil Rights Activist

civil rights leader john lewis

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.

john lewis march on washington
John Lewis preparing to speak at the March on Washington, 1963

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.

john lewis dead at 80
Selma to Montgomery marches, aka ‘Bloody Sunday,’ 1965

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.

civil rights john lewis death obituary
A newspaper clipping of John Lewis getting arrested during the Civil Rights protests

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.

representative john lewis civil rights activist
John Lewis getting arrested at a protest for immigration reform, 2013

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.


Copaganda: Why Hollywood’s Police Officer Needs To Evolve (Or Even Disappear)

Lena Finkel
Lena Finkel is the Editor and Founder of Femestella. Prior to starting Femestella, she worked at People, InStyle, Tiger Beat, and Sesame Workshop (aka Sesame Street). She loves all things Real Housewives and Vanderpump Rules. When she's not busy binge-watching TV, you can find her hanging out with her tuxedo cat Tom.