Today I mourn the passing of a great Georgian, the Honorable Congressman John Lewis.
The son of a sharecropper, John Lewis grew up in a time of racial injustice that was frankly shameful and difficult to imagine. At the young age of 21, he was one of the original 13 black and white “Freedom Riders” who rode together in segregated buses from New Orleans to Washington. He was physically beaten many times, sometimes to unconsciousness, and wrongfully spent many nights in jails for his peaceful resistance.
One of the “Big Six” who led the 1963 March on Washington – where another great Georgian, Dr. Martin Luthor King Jr., gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech – Lewis fundamentally changed America for the better. The Civil Rights movement orchestrated by these two Georgians proved that non-violent resistance is the only way to truly change people’s hearts.
It is interesting to note there have been 50 other civil rights movements in the last 70 years – with leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Lech Walesa and Nelson Mandela – who successfully made the human race a better species through non-violent resistance. Activists who resort to violence, however – such as the Fascists of Italy and Germany, and Communists all around the world – have historically led to slaughter, totalitarianism and despair.
It is impossible to talk about the Civil Rights movement without mentioning its origins. The core of MLK’s message “was inspired by his Christian beliefs and the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi.” Nearly all of MLK’s speeches are based on the Bible, and nearly all civil rights movements were religious in nature. It is also important to remember that it was predominately Jews and Christians who first outlawed slavery, first granted minorities the right to vote, first granted women the right to vote, and first enacted civil rights movements all around the world.
MLK preached extensively about the power of faith. In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech he said, “In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plain of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
Congressman Lewis described President Barak Obama’s inauguration as an “out-of-body” experience that he never thought would happen. “When we were organizing voter registration drives,” he said, “going on the Freedom Rides, sitting in, coming here to Washington for the first time, getting arrested, going to jail, being beaten, I never thought – I never dreamed – of the possibility that an African American would one day be elected president of the United States.”
Yet it did happen. And shortly after the first Black president was elected, he gave Congressman Lewis a plaque that said, “Because of you, John.”
I had the honor of speaking directly to Congressman Lewis about two years ago as the captain of the Delta jet that flew him from Atlanta to Washington. Most of the celebrities I meet on my plane are aloof, but Congressman Lewis could not have been more engaging or nicer. His infectious humor and joy of life had the entire crew laughing.
I pray for the family of this heroic Georgian and for the soul of this nation that he enriched. May we – together – always peacefully strive, for a “more perfect union” as our Constitution describes.