John Lewis’s message: The power of voices and of voting

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I first came close to meeting Congressman John Lewis in February 2016. I was attending the “Museums on the Hill Days,” an annual opportunity for museum professionals to meet with their congressional representatives and senators. We were visiting from the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., of which I am the president. 

Although we were slated to meet only with Tennessee’s congressional delegation, we asked to meet with Rep. Lewis’s office as well. An appointment was scheduled but there was a vote on the House floor at the same time as our visit, so we met only with his staff. We extended an invitation for him to join us for the 50th commemoration of the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “MLK50: Where Do We Go from Here?” The commemoration would culminate with presentations from the Lorraine courtyard and from the balcony of Room 306, where Dr. King was slain, followed by an evening of storytelling. 

As we got closer to 2018, we knew we wanted to spotlight the icons of the movement — Andrew Young, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Bernard Lafayette, Diane Nash, Rev. James Lawson, Ruby Bridges, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland and Rep. Lewis (D-Ga.), to name a few. So we set about organizing panels of icons and 21st century movement-makers. The highlight of the evening would be a moderated conversation between James Lawson and John Lewis. 

The opportunity to finally meet Congressman Lewis came in March 2018, when he visited the National Civil Rights Museum with the Faith and Politics Institute’s congressional delegation. It was Rep. Lewis who insisted that members of Congress make a pilgrimage to civil rights sites throughout the South.   

I prepared myself to meet this man who I had read about and whose work I had admired for many years. The man who had the courage to be on the first bus of Freedom Riders. Who stared down police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., before being charged on and beaten by state troopers. Who was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. Who served as the chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). 

At last, I would meet this giant of a man.

The moment came, and the thought that ran through my mind was his small stature and quiet elegance. I walked to him and introduced myself, welcoming him to the National Civil Rights Museum. I thanked him for his sacrifice and service, and for taking other congressional representatives to important civil rights sites. He was gracious in his response, stating simply the importance of the trip, and confirmed that he would participate in our commemoration events. 

He did not tour the museum then, as his time was limited and he had toured it before. But if he had, I would have hoped to hear a few stories about his journey to help us live free. I would have asked what compelled him to join the Freedom Rides, about being thrown into Parchman Prison, what his parents thought about his activism. I would have asked what it felt like to be on the frontline in Selma and whether, at that moment, his commitment to the movement was greater than his personal fear. I would have asked about the March on Washington — was the atmosphere electric? Was it intimidating to speak before such a large crowd? Was he nervous about speaking before Dr. King? 

Most importantly, I would have asked him what I should do to make a difference and to continue to fight for freedom, justice and equity. 

I didn’t have the chance to ask those questions that day but I would have a second chance on April 4, 2018, or so I thought. The day was full of remembrances, reviewing the previous 50 years and looking forward to a better, more equitable future. That evening, Tamron Hall moderated the conversation between James Lawson and John Lewis at “An Evening of Storytelling” — apropos, since Lewis was a student of Lawson’s organizing techniques.  

It was a fascinating, engaging hour-long discussion that walked through the successes of the mid-20th century movement and the challenges we face today. In his closing remarks, Rep. Lewis answered the question I never got to ask. He told me what I had to do to ensure freedom, justice and equity: He told me to vote, to use the right for which he and so many others fought and, in too many cases, died. He told me — and the hundreds of guests — to use the power of the ballot to affect change. He and Lawson emphasized the combination of the power of people’s voices through protest combined with the power of people’s voices through voting. 

Although my heart is heavy at the passing of this great foot-soldier of the civil rights movement and congressman for the people, I’m thankful for the message he gave us on April 4, 2018. His message to each of us — to vote — inspired the National Civil Rights Museum’s #MyVoteMyVoice2020 campaign. In his honor, we’ll vote like our lives depend on it, because they do. 

Terri Lee Freeman is president of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. She previously was president of the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, the largest nonprofit funder in the Washington region, for 18 years and was founding executive director of the Freddie Mac Foundation, the grant-making branch of Freddie Mac Corp.

Tags anti-racism protests Bloody Sunday March civil rights civil rights activist civil rights leaders congressman fighting racism Jim Crow laws John Lewis March on Washington racial disparity voting rights Voting Rights Act

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