The words “hero” and “patriot” are too easily misappropriated by partisans in this politically divisive, bumper-sticker culture. And the words “legend” and “icon” are routinely devalued in a society that often lacks historical perspective.
And then there is John Lewis. The late, alas, John Lewis. Hero. Patriot. Legend. Icon.
The death of the 17-term Georgia congressman, 80, has unsurprisingly galvanized non-Trump America, which is still, thankfully, a majority of Americans. He embodied what we should all want in our American heroes.
An original “Freedom Rider” and former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis risked his life—and literally shed his blood—for the moral cause of racial equality without ever invoking or stoking violence. “Find a way to get in the way” was never a dog whistle to riot—or respond in kind to police brutality and white bigotry. Neither was “good trouble.” Lewis stood for morality not militancy—the antithesis of “Burn, baby, burn.” He boycotted Trump’s inauguration.
This son of a rural Alabama sharecropper family never let national forums be about anything other than the righteous cause he devoted his life to. He became very important, but never self-important. The cause was always center stage—not Lewis. It was about principle—not personality.
He earned his iconic status—and never leveraged it to boost his image. He was the North Star of anti-racism and voting rights, the avatar of class–and the conscience of the Congress. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama and, in passing, became the first black lawmaker to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol’s Rotunda. No, President Trump, was not among those paying final respects.
BTW, a lot of empty monument pedestals now loom, especially in the South. That’s an obvious opportunity for Lewis lionization, as well as affixing his name to a certain Selma bridge. Restoring the Voting Rights Act should be a given. Symbolically, such public displays of homage would help extend his morally-courageous life’s work of making America honor its ideals by non-violently ending racism.