Racial Equity

John Lewis: An American Hero

July 19, 2020  • Eric L. Motley

Death cannot hold John Lewis to the grave. Death nor time can hold John Lewis to the grave, he belongs to the ages, he is American history – past and present.

To some degree, I suppose, the heroic age has suddenly ended. There is great anxiety in calling someone a hero, because the very moment you celebrate them for their exceptional and transcendent virtue is the very moment that the “investigators” seek to confirm their imperfections. For me, the hero is human – in fact it is their very humanness that makes their acts heroic. John Lewis is an American hero, no statue need be erected or later taken down by another age. Growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, I remember sitting, with my grandfather, on the back porch, one hot, July evening, as he told me the story of the Selma march. As he went through his rolodex of the characters, I remember him saying to me, “that young John Lewis almost gave his life for the cause,” referencing the young man who lived just up the road from us in Troy, Alabama. In the end, he did give his life for the cause.

1965 is a long way from 2020, but in so many ways it is not.

1965 is a long way from 2020, but in so many ways it is not. What took place on that Sunday, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, set into motion the natural evolution of the democratic manifesto. And yet, even now, we are reminded by the events of the last 15 weeks, that the democratic doors have still not been opened wide enough. Brutally beaten and knocked down, he stood up, and stood up again, and again, and kept on marching, a march that has lasted for over fifty years. Even as I write these words, I am so fully aware that my generation has yet to fully appreciate the long march of history and the sacrifices of those that have come before us. And for all of my frustration and disappointment for what has been left “undone,” I cannot deny all that has been done, because of those that have come before us and given their entire lives. Little did I know then, sitting on that back porch, hearing the stories of heroes, that one day I would find myself getting to know John Lewis, in Washington, DC. He always loomed large in every room he entered.

I have always been moved by the last line of the Declaration of Independence, “By affixing their names to the document, the signers courageously pledge to each other their lives … fortunes … and sacred honor.” John Lewis has left his signature on America.