Reflections on the contributions of John Lewis — a mentor and a friend

It’s hard for me to get my head around the fact that I have been a colleague of John Robert Lewis for the past 13-plus years.

But during that time as I have reflected on my congressional career, I have come to realize just how important Congressman Lewis has been to me. In fact, I probably would not have become a member of Congress had it not been for Congressman Lewis.

The truth is that I don’t recall the precise moment when Congressman Lewis and I first met. I think it may have been in 1986 when we were both on the campaign trail – he in a winning bid for Congress, while I ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the Georgia House.

When that campaign was over, I went back to anonymity as a lawyer until I won a seat as a county commissioner where I served for five years before running for Congress in 2006 against a popular incumbent.

But Congressman Lewis must have remembered me.

Most of the old guard Atlanta civil rights leaders came out openly united behind the incumbent. With no primary opposition himself and looking to secure some campaign experience for one of his young volunteers, Congressman Lewis referred then 18-year-old Jon Ossoff to my quixotic campaign.

Jon established the campaign on the then-nascent social media platforms and created a national buzz. Then, the day before the election, Congressman Lewis was quoted as saying words to the effect that he thought “Hank Johnson would make a great congressman.”

This singular statement – uttered at an event at Manuel’s Tavern, Atlanta’s epicenter of progressive thought and politics – propelled me to a run-off and helped tip the balance in my favor in winning the 4th District seat.

And I have been getting into “good trouble” with John Lewis ever since.

Whether in Atlanta marching with Congressman Lewis and Rev. C.T. Vivian on National Voter Registration Day or in the nation’s capital marching with Black Lives Matter protesters, there have been many opportunities to “get in the way.”

I fondly recall the 26-straight hours on the floor of the House with Congressman Lewis protesting the lack of action on gun reform. And at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport together in 2017, working to win the release of people detained when the Trump Muslim ban went into effect.

Congressman Lewis wouldn’t give in. He wouldn’t give out. And he never, ever gave up. He always kept his eyes on the prize.

Although Congressman Lewis was a mentor to me, he was also a friend. Whenever I needed him, he always was willing to help. He was a person who gave unsparingly of himself. He was that way with strangers and even with little children.

Always humble and never haughty or pretentious, Congressman Lewis was a regular human being who was close to and walked with the people. He never put on airs or made you feel that you were beneath him. He used his position of great power in service to the people of Georgia’s 5th District – and the nation and the world – not for his own self-aggrandizement.

Congressman Lewis was also a man of great courage – a man unafraid to repeatedly sacrifice his body for the cause of racial justice, human dignity and civil rights and equality for all.

I am comforted in believing that Congressman Lewis was pleased to see a diverse new generation of young people of all races and sexual orientations – getting into good trouble, protesting police brutality and systemic racism in this country.

No one deserves a much-needed rest more than John Robert Lewis – and now we must follow his example and take up the baton to help finish what he started so long ago in Troy, Alabama and at the side of Martin Luther King Jr.

After all, I wouldn’t be here without him.

Congressman Johnson is a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee and the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, and he is Chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on Courts, Intellect Property and the Internet.

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