John Lewis, Hero

Hero: 

a person admired for achievements and noble qualities. One who shows great courage.

I’ve been fortunate to have met lots of well known actors, musicians, and political leaders in my 30s and 40s, while working for elected officials and involved in arts funding.  But it wasn’t until my 50s that I met one of my heroes, at the Brooklyn Public Library. It was at a book signing for the second volume of March, the three part memoir of the civil rights movement authored by John Lewis in collaboration with two younger colleagues. 

There’s a thrill in meeting someone you revere and utter delight and relief when that person is as kind, decent and generous as you hoped he’d be. That’s what I remember about that evening. After a short moving talk, those of us who purchased books lined up – from elderly to schoolchildren; just like the book itself, the event at the library was multigenerational. And so was the signature: I asked him to inscribe it to B because I thought it would be something meaningful to give him that would resonate when he was older…Five years later, Keep the Faith seems more essential a message than anything I can think of. The phrase means to continue to believe in, trust, or support something, like justice, when it is difficult to do so. It’s especially hard at a time when we have national leaders who are so corrupt and mean-spirited, so diametrically opposed to everything John Lewis did and was, to his motivations and intentions.

Lewis and others in the non-violence movement saw it as a religious prescription to love thy enemy, to see your foe as a baby and feel love towards that innocent being. It’s a deeply spiritual philosophy that has love and respect for all God’s children at its core, a profound contrast to the profane approach so common among his peers who often have a narrow sense of their constituency, of who or what they serve. 

In the past week since he’s died I’ve read tributes that poured in highlighting the same traits that resonated when I watched him signing books – the decency and humility, the kind way he spoke to elders and teens and everyone in between. At 5’5” he was small in stature, and while he may have towered over us as a national figure, he felt of the people, not better than or separate. 

I think a lot of us yearn for heroes that don’t let us down. Lewis was a role model; someone who maintained courage, resilience and a lack of bitterness despite all the beatings, imprisonment and taunts he endured. It was reassuring just knowing someone with such a strong moral conscience was on that public stage. (I pray his colleague in arms RBG,with the same diagnosis of late stage pancreatic cancer, hangs in there!)

It’s heartening how that minute or so at the book signing has resonated the last five years, how often I’ve gone back to a snapshot of that simple message scrawled on a page. If he can keep the faith, surely I can, we can, those of us with challenges not nearly as great as well as those facing pandemics of illness and racism.  

“I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation,” he said. “Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete.”  He said that as the youngest speaker at the March on Washington at 23. When he died last week at 80 those words and his legacy were never more relevant.  And so while I’m filled with sadness and grief there’s also gratitude and enough faith to keep on going.

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