The hero was once called a troublemaker, and far worse.
In the past few days, as the country has paid homage to the great John Lewis, that fact has been important to remember. It’s the lens that focuses the praise.
It’s what we needed to keep in mind as a horse-drawn carriage escorted Lewis’ flag-draped casket over the Alabama bridge where half a century ago, during a voting rights march, a state trooper fractured his skull with a billy club.
That fact gave greater meaning to the parade of thousands lined up in the swelter outside the U.S. Capitol, where this week Lewis’ body lay in state in the rotunda, making him the first Black lawmaker ever honored in that way.
By the time of Lewis’ death, on July 17, at the age of 80, many Americans of different political leanings hailed him as a hero, an icon, a legend. True and deserved words, but words so pretty they can make it hard to feel — truly feel — the ugliness he endured before he was widely called a great American.
Feel this: In his fight for civil rights, John Lewis was beaten bloody. Spit upon. Herded into jail. Over and over. Like the Black Americans whose rights he fought for, he was treated as less than a citizen. And not so long ago.
But eventually the times changed around Lewis, in part because of him. A Black man, the son of sharecroppers, born into the legally segregated South, he ascended into the political brawl in the United States Congress, though ascend may not be quite the right word.
Lewis, a representative from Georgia, never gave the aura of thinking that the marble halls of Congress elevated him above the streets and lunch counters where he once protested.
“The humility was very deep,” his longtime friend Eleanor Holmes Norton was quoted recently as saying. “The humility was part of his nonviolence.”
It was the kind of humility that later in his life made many people warm to John Lewis, the nonviolent warrior, as if he were a favorite uncle. As a congressman, he attended countless luncheons, tributes, rallies, graduations. He put people at ease.
After he died, I was astonished by how many people posted photos of themselves with him on social media. Was there anyone who hadn’t met him?
I met him once. He was receiving an honorary degree from the College of Wooster in Ohio and I was speaking at the graduation. Afterward, we spent an hour in a van back to the airport, just the two of us. I didn’t take notes or even a photo, which I slightly regret, but the moment felt too intimate to document.
In the cocoon of the van, with the highway humming, we talked about growing up in the South. I found myself wanting to apologize to him for that place and time we had both come from, though he didn’t make me feel I needed to. What I remember most about the conversation was his belief in people’s ability to change, his recognition that some never would and his willingness to forgive. The essence of humility.
For a while, years later, I kept a log of his tweets. I rooted them out after he died. A sampling:
Be hopeful. Be optimistic. Don’t get lost in a sea of despair. Love is a better way.
I was beaten bloody by police officers. But I never hated them. I said, ‘Thank you for your service.’
I feel sometimes we’re sliding backwards. The scars & stains of racism are still deeply embedded in America society. We have to deal with it.
We are one people, one family, one house, we must learn to live together as family.
Coming from someone else, some of those words might seem naive. But Lewis was far from naive. He understood that the way to change the world is through words of hope and acts of courage, though those things may sometimes seem at odds.
Near the end of his life, he was heartbroken over the death of George Floyd, a Minnesota man killed by police. And yet he was heartened by the protests that followed.
“People now understand what the struggle was all about,” he said in a June interview with CBS. “It’s another step down the very, very long road toward freedom, justice for all humankind.”
Until the end, John Lewis looked toward the future, understanding in a unique way that the heroes of tomorrow are the troublemakers of today.
Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.