Conscience of a Country

In October 2016, President Barack Obama hosted a South by South Lawn Festival for people working to achieve social good through organizing and innovation. Rep. John Lewis told a new generation of committed change makers it was necessary to “get into some good trouble”, to upset the balance of power making injustice too much the norm, and to make more good possible.

John Lewis was 23 years old when he addressed the 1963 March on Washington. On the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, he was nearly beaten to death. He often noted he was arrested more than 40 times in the 1960s, during protests demanding fully equal protection of civil rights and voting rights. He was uniquely driven and dedicated, but was never alone; he believed in being part of a movement, was always attuned to the movement of public conscience, and he never gave up.

John Lewis died last week at the age of 80, after a 6-month struggle with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

The nation has lost a leading light in the ongoing struggle for genuine liberty and justice for all. His immense contributions flowed from deep personal moral conscience, a commitment to oppose injustice, even at risk to his own safety, and a determination to be of service to others. At the March on Washington, he famously declaimed:

We don’t want our freedom gradually; we want to be free now!

His life was a continuation of the great American struggle for universally protected civil rights, and a fulfillment, in many ways, of the nation’s foundational ideals. His demand for justice and liberty never wavered, never tired, and is very much the spirit that now says Black Lives Matter—and none of us can be whole or free, until all institutions honor that fully.

But what brought so many close to him, so many to view him as a mentor, even political rivals to see him as an example of how to lead, serve, and legislate, was that his demand was made more powerful by his humility. He did not hold himself up as more important; he did not glory in the power of public office. Instead, he was interested in the basic humanity of anyone he met, and that genuine interest was unmistakable and always resonated long after.

I never met him, but I know this feeling of warmth and humility well, because everyone I know who has met him relayed that feeling vividly. He changed people; he deepened the commitment of others; he did this by recognizing their power to make change happen, even before they knew it themselves.

It feels right to say that in the presence of John Lewis, you could not help but experience the certainty that there is right, and good, and a way to be decent to each other, and that he understood this deeply. The inspiration of that comes from the fact that it is far too rare a thing for all of this to be so present in one person, while ego does not get in the way; the comfort comes from how easy and rational he made it seem to stay that course, no matter what.

There is no one who did not benefit from what he achieved, and yet he was the first to recognize that others gave more; others died where he suffered. That righteous, selfless sympathy established clearly his life’s work: to stay focused on the transcendent value of uplifting the vulnerable and doing good for others.

In opening the Democratic Party presidential primary debate on Wednesday, Nov 20, 2019, he said:

I welcome each and every one of you to Atlanta, to my district, the home of the civil rights movement. Our home is too busy to hate, but not too busy to care. We must be more determined than ever before. We must go all out across this nation with a single message: That we must save the soul of America. We must help save the planet. We have a right to know what is in the food we eat, what is in the air we breathe, and what is in the water we drink. We must do everything in our power to turn out people to vote like we never ever voted before. Now, there are forces in America that want to take us back to another time and another place. We have come too far. We have made too much progress, and we are not going back! We are going forward!

John Lewis understood that what makes a person sovereign, whole, and free is not only lack of constraint, but the protected right to develop their own mind and character fully, and act from free choice based on genuine understanding of solid evidence and information. He understood that the right to know is the heart of what makes us human, and central to any effort to achieve a self-governing society, with liberty and justice for all.

I am grateful to have shared this Earth for so long with John Lewis. I know, as others have noted, he will always be with us; he is part of the DNA of American democracy. We must honor his contribution by working every day to live up to his principled demand:

You must be able and prepared to give until you cannot give any more. We must use our time and our space on this little planet that we call Earth to make a lasting contribution, to leave it a little better than we found it, and now that need is greater than ever before.

Respond to Conscience of a Country

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