Lessons from the Legacy of John Lewis

Representative John Lewis, who passed away last Friday, will be remembered as a key figure and moral authority in the blood-drenched civil rights era when Black people were systematically deprived of their basic human rights.

Mr. Lewis left us a template to passionately disarm hate and take part in what this icon deemed ‘good trouble.’

As powerful as his legacy will be, there is so much more we can take away from his time on earth. Representative Lewis’ inspiring life was due to being a well-rounded figure. Outside his fight for racial equality, Mr. Lewis strived to be holistically enriching. While we remember and memorialize his legacy, there are so many lessons we can take away from this civil rights icon.

For starters, he knew the importance of presenting himself well. Before his first time protesting, John Lewis found a used men’s store and bought a suit with a vest along with a solid black tie. Mr. Lewis knew he would likely be arrested and his photo would be everywhere. He knew that he might be interviewed and that he and his brethren would be filmed. “They could not paint me as a raggedy lost soul. I looked sharp. I looked clean,” John Lewis explained.

Congressman Lewis also spoke up for issues outside his core focus. In 1987, he attended the “Freedom Rally” for Soviet Jews where he vouched, “As long as one Jew is denied the right to be Jewish in the Soviet Union, we all are Jews in the Soviet Union.” Mr. Lewis also participated in the Women’s March and March for Our Lives. The five times Mr. Lewis was arrested as a Congressman, he was involved in protesting for better policies around child labor laws, gun control, and food stamps. Though he had a pet cause, the civil rights hero knew when to use his platform and used it often.

He also knew how to have fun. Upon hearing the news of his passing, countless public figures posted photos and videos of Mr. Lewis grooving and dancing at parties and public events. It was known that his favorite song was Happy by Pharrel (Michelle Obama posted a touching video of him dancing to this tune at a campaign rally for Stacey Abrams in 2018). He crowd surfed after an interview with Stephen Colbert. In a conversation with musician John Baptist Jr., Mr. Lewis underscored the value of “joy and frolic.“

More than any public figure I admire, John Lewis knew when to be firm with his convictions. When he was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Mr. Lewis sometimes refused bail to underscore the deep injustice people suffered and to also ensure the racist criminal justice system would receive no further financial support. Though he was immensely disappointed by President Clinton’s action, he was fervently opposed to impeachment because he knew it had nothing to do with morals or the integrity of the office. He chose not to attend the inauguration of then President-elect Trump stating, “You cannot be at home with something that you feel that is wrong, is not right.”

The trait I will admire most about John Lewis is his ability to forgive. In May 1961, while attempting to enter a “Whites Only” waiting area at a bus station in South Carolina, Lewis was beaten by a gang of Klansmen, robbed, and left in a pool of blood.

Despite having every justification for being vengeful, then 25-year-old John Lewis beckoned his followers to have compassion for his persecutors and even declined to press charges then. As he explained to a crowd decades later, “At that point, the only power we had was the power to forgive.”

In 2009, a 70-year-old man and his son tracked down Congressman Lewis. The man was Elwin Wilson, the individual who, almost 40 years ago, brutally beat the young activist. When Mr. Wilson, and his kid, sat down with the civil rights icon, he expressed immense regret for his actions. Fighting back tears he said, “I’m so sorry about what happened back then.” As Elwin’s son began to sob, Mr. Lewis replied, “It’s okay I forgive you.”

Mr. Lewis even forgave George Wallace, the ardent segregationist governor of Alabama. In a 1988 New York Times op-ed,Mr. Lewis wrote, “When I met George Wallace, I had to forgive him, because to do otherwise — to hate him — would only perpetuate the evil system we sought to destroy.”

In his memoir Walking with the Wind, he noted, “The essence of non-violent life is the capacity to forgive — even as a person is cussing, or pushing a lit cigarette into your neck.”

His ability to forgive exemplified his strength and a sense of fortitude to carry on with life. He knew that we are a better nation when we provide room for change. He also knew what many social justice warriors and cancel culture crusaders have not yet learned: political leaders are human and largely a reflection of their time. They can be malleable. They, like everyone else, have an ability for adjustment. Growth must be an inclusive activity, not just for those who already agree with us. For redemption is the only way for true progressive change to form. But first you have hope. And in order to do, you must forgive those who have deeply wronged you.

The issues Mr. Lewis fought for are now at the heart of our national conversation. Whether we are students of his work or knowledgeable about it, we all owe him a debt of gratitude because we are standing on his shoulders. As I move forward, I will take to heart the lessons I learned from John Lewis.

Founder of Honest Wednesdays and pragmatic optimist.

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