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When great trees fall: Remembering John Lewis

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“When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.”

— Maya Angelou

Maybe it’s because John Lewis grew up a sharecropper’s son in rural Alabama and I was the grandson of sharecroppers in rural South Carolina that I marveled at the difficulties and successes of his life and felt so strongly his passing on Friday.

Maybe it was because I could imagine the courage of a man who personally faced down Alabama Gov. George Wallace (D) on the Edmund Pettus Bridge near Selma, carrying with him always the trauma of that bloody Sunday in 1965 — and later was able to forgive him.

Maybe it was because I knew Rep. Lewis (D-Ga.), spoke with him and saw the man as well as the legend — the “conscience of Congress” — and I came to believe I could not let him down.

Maybe it was something more because, though not all of us share such connections, we all knew Lewis. He was our great tree — and today we felt the distant hills shudder. Lewis, 80, had announced in December that he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer.  

Over the next few days, we’ll read and hear a great deal about this civil rights icon. 

We’ll be reminded of how he challenged all of us to rise to our potential, both as a nation and a people. They’ll talk about how his voice resounded through the halls of power, his words growing stronger even as his body became more frail. We’ll remember his triumphs and tragedies and how, as long as America fell short of her promise — as long as even one of us could fall victim to the trauma that Lewis endured in the struggle against racism and discrimination — he pledged to continue to fight.

We will remember Lewis and know his “legacy of good trouble,” and our eyes will see, as the poet Maya Angelou wrote, “a hurtful clarity.”

To mark his passing, many of us will cry as we listen to the eulogies. But we know, as Scripture reminds us, that Lewis fought the good fight. He finished his race. He kept the faith.

Though we will miss his wisdom and leadership, if we cry it is not simply in sadness, but also out of fear. Our country is enduring a difficult, divisive time and Lewis’s passing comes alongside the death of another civil rights legend, the Rev. C.T. Vivian, in Atlanta.

Like Vivian, Lewis was a man who carried the weight with strength and grace. Now the burden is ours. We may worry that we aren’t strong enough — but we dare not let him down.

When great trees fall, new seeds sprout around the fallen trunk and grow not as weeds but, hopefully in time, as great trees themselves.

Congressman Lewis can rest now. He planted us in fertile ground, tended us with care, and saw to it that our roots are deep and strong. Now we can spread our branches wide enough to shade his memory, as he sheltered us.

We can be confident that he made us strong enough to withstand the storm. We will not let him down. We will continue the fight.

As Angelou wrote in her famous poem about death, “When Great Trees Fall”:

“Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”

Antjuan Seawright is a Democratic political strategist, founder and CEO of Blueprint Strategy LLC, and a CBS News political contributor. Follow him on Twitter @antjuansea.

Tags C.T. Vivian Civil rights movement conscience of Congress John Lewis Maya Angelou racism in America

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