My broadway debut with John Lewis
Everyone who has known John Lewis has stories to tell. As with any oral tradition, they echo in slightly different versions of the same theme, like how he would lift you up by calling you “my brother” and how he would modulate from a soft murmur to fire and brimstone. This is a story about him you have not heard from the time I spent with him in Congress.
In 2014, the production “All The Way” starring Bryan Cranston opened on broadway. The show depicts the cunning strategies of Lyndon Johnson to pass the Civil Rights Act during his first year as president. I asked Lewis if I could put together a fundraising lunch for him in Manhattan followed by a viewing of the play. My staff purchased tickets and asked if there was any way that Lewis, our guests, and I could meet the cast. We were informed later that several actors would be available after the performance.
We started out this special day in my New York district on Long Island. I took Lewis to an African American church in a town known as Glen Cove. When he spoke, the crowd fell into a quiet reverence and listened. As we left, parents nudged their children toward him. He refused to exit without hugging every kid who reached out to him. Then we drove to Manhattan, pulled into a parking garage, walked three blocks to the restaurant.
The usual short stroll took 20 minutes. There was the utility worker who bellowed “John Lewis!” as he emerged from a manhole and scrambled to shake hands with the lawmakers, couples from the suburbs who insisted on photos, and college students who peppered him with questions. At one point, I asked him whether we were in his district or near mine.
We finally made it to the Neil Simon Theater on West 52nd Street. As an usher led us to our seats as heads turned and fingers pointed to Lewis. I sat next to him during the performance, and heard him whisper on a few occasions or register his recognition with a soft laugh. The performance ended and the theater cleared. We waited for several actors to join us. I figured there would be the usual grip and grins and we would leave. But the entire cast came out, including Cranston, Michael McKean, Brandon Dirden, Betsy Aidem, and the actors who had so convincingly portrayed Hubert Humphrey, George Wallace, Richard Russell, and others.
After some photos, I asked if any of them could say a few words about the show. But one of the actors claimed, “We would actually love to hear from Congressman Lewis.” The actors became the audience, and Lewis became the star of a one man show. He reflected on the reality they portrayed. He shared stories that they absorbed for future performances. I noticed tears starting to fall down the faces of several of the actors. They continued to ask Lewis questions, which he answered as always, softly and patiently. At the end of the session, the cast gave him a great standing ovation.
We are a nation so divided that we are now fighting over the Civil War. We debate statues in a proxy argument over whether to embrace or repudiate the grave sins of the past. Our president is so out of touch on this critical issue that he has threatened to veto the spending bill of the Pentagon if it contains any bipartisan language mandating the removal of confederate names from military properties. This is almost like saying that he wants to “defund the soldiers” in order to preserve the legacy of racism.
Now may be a good time to erect statues of Lewis on Capitol Hill and in parks and public places. I served in the shadow of a living monument. A memorial marked not by graffiti but by the wounds inflicted by the bigots who beat him. A memorial that brought tears to broadway on that day six years ago and now as the nation says goodbye to him this week.
Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and was the chairman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.