We buried John Lewis this week.
I say we, like I was at the funeral, or like he was a member of my family, but I think he would be OK with my use of the word – John belonged to all of us.
Despite his having seen us at our worst, he never quit believing we could be our best, too. In his amazing eulogy of John Lewis, former President Barak Obama called him “a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America” that we dream possible.
John was not only a legend; he was the stuff of legends. He was an organizer in his teens. At 20 years old he was one of the original Freedom Riders. At 23 he spoke at the March on Washington. At 25 he got his skull smashed in Selma, Alabama. But he didn’t stop there, and he didn’t rest. He spent three decades in Congress, and in 2016 he organized a sit-in in Congress itself.
Any way you measure it, he was a force to be reckoned with. And now he is gone.
When we lose the icons of the movement, Social Media floods with tributes, and they often lament that we will not see these sort of folks again.
There are two things I want to say about this.
The first is that John Lewis did not spring from his mother’s womb as the icon of the movement he later came to be. No, he was, to use a loaded term, radicalized. He talked about how the death of Emmet Till shook him. Emmet was 14, and John was 15. He was filled with anger, and then he heard the words of Martin Luther King on the family radio talking about how nonviolence and civil disobedience can change the world. And it changed John.
But I take comfort from the fact that John Lewis changed. He grew. He never stopped growing, which means that the John Lewis who stood in Black Lives Matter Plaza the day before he went into the hospital for the last time and the John Lewis who marched in Selma were not the same person, and would not have agreed on all of the same issues. In his later years, he was an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights. He fought for the environment, he advocated gun control.
So the good news is that John was not born a legend – he became one. And if he can evolve, so can you. And so can your friend on Social Media who “isn’t there yet’ on whatever issue is dear to your heart. We can all change, we can all grow, we can all evolve. We can all be radicalized.
The second thing I want to point out is that John Lewis was a part of the Movement – he was not the Movement. Yes, it was John Lewis leading the march at Selma, but there were hundreds of folk, their names forgotten to history but essential to the operation, who shuttled people in cars, who packed sack lunches, who argued in court, who stood as witnesses to the brutality, who took the pictures, who opened up their houses in those days when hotels would turn away Black folk, who prayed, who donated their pennies and nickels stolen from that week’s grocery money.
All of those folk were part of the movement too.
Our temptation, when we see a John Lewis, is to believe that he is a fundamentally different sort of person than we are. To believe that he is a hero, larger than life, the stuff of myth or fable. And we tell ourselves that the way change happens is that we have a hero to save us. A Martin Luther King, a Rosa Parks, a John Lewis. But that means that if we see things that need to change, we have to wait for a hero to show up before they change.
But if change is not the result of a hero, but the result of a movement, well, then we all get to have a part. We all get to do our thing to move this world further toward the better world we dream possible. If we can’t lead the march, we can make the lunches for the one who does. If we can’t speak on the national platform, we can share articles on Facebook. If we can’t feed 1,000 hungry people, we can feed one.
We can all be part of the movement. We can all change the world.
“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.” – John Lewis
NB: If you like where I am going with this idea, and want to move more toward being the person John Lewis thought you could be, I heavily recommend my friend David LaMotte’s book Worldchanging 101: Challenging the Myth of Powerlessness. I owe him an incredible debt for his teaching me about hero’s vs movements.