I missed out on a chance to meet the late John Robert Lewis and to shake his hand.
The opportunity came and went quickly. In the few minutes it took me to break free from a long-winded talker, the congressman from Georgia had left the room and was gone. My disappointment was deep.
Lewis was one of only a handful of people I would actually cross the street to meet. He was a real American hero of mine. The congressman’s recent passing at age 80 saddened many of us who expected him to beat the odds of his cancer, just like he beat the odds of his opponents during the civil rights protests across the South.
Lewis liked to call his contribution to protesting “good trouble,” the kind that helped bring about racial change to the stubborn South. Time had run out, and we could no longer out of conscience keep blacks from their constitutional rights and the voting booths.
This past week gave me moments to mourn and to reflect on one of Alabama’s greatest sons. TV coverage of his week-long journey from Alabama to Washington to Atlanta brought back in sharp focus his time in history and how he helped change that bad history.
Lewis was born into a life of extreme poverty and oppression as the son of sharecroppers on someone else’s land near Troy in Pike County. The shack he grew up in had no electricity and no running water. The Troy library refused to give him a membership card, and Troy State College never replied to his application for admission.
Sharecropping in the Jim Crow South in Lewis’ youth was a hard, dead-end form of white servitude from which there was little chance of escape. But Lewis had a dream. He wanted something better for himself, his family and his people.
Today, we claim him as one of us, an Alabamian. But his moral strength to take on the unpopular and unjust cause of voting and civil rights in a hard-headed and hard-hearted state and southland elevated him far above any one place. He belonged to America, and he rose to the status of beloved American.
Lewis’ kind of moral strength was forged from lengthy days of aching work on the farm and the ugly racial discrimination he ran into at every turn. The put-downs from snobbish whites convinced him that something had to change, even if it meant broken bones and suffering, perhaps even death.
Lewis’ growing up and coming of age in the Old South ways, with its ugly, awful laws and long-held prejudices against blacks, helped turn his gentle mind toward revolt, the kind that could be brought about by peaceful protest and not physical force.
Lewis was a little man in size but a towering giant in personal and moral strength. His fear never held him back. “When the fear is gone, you’re free,” he repeated many times.
Last week, Troy University and the city honored “the boy from Troy.” His funeral train started with his lying in state in the college’s arena in his hometown. Quite a change from a town that once considered him a dark-skinned nobody, not worth the ragged clothes he was wearing.
Lewis, though, never ever gave in. He sincerely believed that the deeply stubborn South could change. But it would be an epic fight. And so he became a gentle servant in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and ‘70s that brought real change for Southern blacks.
But prostate cancer did what Billy clubs and fist beatings could not. It took him from us physically but not mentally. And like Lincoln, from whose memorial in Washington Lewis spoke as a 22-year-old man, Lewis now belongs to the ages, too.
What I admired most about Lewis was his simplicity, his sincere humility and his open-to-all friendliness. His mind was free of any form of hate for anyone, even the highway patrolman who cracked his head open with a wild baton swing at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Or the many hateful beatings he endured.
There are calls today for the bridge that bears the name of the Southern racist and Klu Klux Klan leader to be renamed for Lewis. But during his later life Lewis fought the idea. The bridge, he said, needed to keep the Pettus name to remind everyone of how cruel blacks were treated before they gained their rights.
The high hump of the bridge serves as a comparison to the high hump blacks had to climb to achieve their rightful place of equality in our society.
Lewis’ often stated and simple message was this: if all of us cannot live together as brothers and sisters, regardless of our color and beliefs, the time will come when civil order will be trampled under and our country will become a wasteland of haters and violence.
Our fortified homes will become our personal prisons. Beatings and killings will continue until no one is left standing on either side of the black-and-white divide.
And, yet, the only thing, really, separating us is the color of our skin, not the content of our character, Lewis said, repeating the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King.
Lewis served in the House of Representatives in Washington for 30 years, repeatedly elected from an Atlanta district. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and other congressional leaders called him “the conscience of the Congress.” This week, as part of his funeral, his body lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda, an honor given to only a handful of Americans.
As an ordained minister, Lewis preached that respect, tolerance and acceptance of all people are as essential as life, liberty and happiness. Without them, there is no respect, no peace at any price, and we all wither on the vine of hate. It’s a sermon the chickens on his Troy farm heard every day of his youth.
As an Alabama native, Lewis never turned against his home state for the shallow political shenanigans of its former racist leaders. He never denounced the government that upheld racism, but he denounced the second-class system that kept blacks in their low place of extreme poverty and inhumanity.
His death does not represent the end of an era, as many newspapers stated. It represents the beginning of a new era, one that permanently ends discrimination forever in the minds, hearts and souls of all Americans. I believe the wisdom and wise words of Lewis will help steer us through any dangerous and difficult times to come.
Ralph Morris is a retired newspaperman who lives near Auburn. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.