Two rare moments with John Lewis

Two rare moments with John Lewis
© Greg Nash

From the time he was a young man in the 1960s, John LewisJohn LewisTrump to pay respects to Ginsburg at Supreme Court Democrats urge Biden to resist filibuster, court-packing calls Rep. Bill Pascrell named chair of House oversight panel MORE consistently put his life on the line in pursuit of racial justice. During his extraordinary career in public service, he lent his name and commitment to numerous causes, all in the pursuit of civil rights and human dignity in our world.

Lewis was a giant among activists revered for his incredible commitment to justice and equality. He often spoke about getting into “good trouble” and “necessary trouble” by setting this ethos into practice into his work, serving as a role model for those of us who admired him. He showed us how to approach activism to effect change with discipline and grace.

By all accounts, in nearly every situation with Lewis, those in his presence left a little richer with knowledge. I had the opportunity to experience this two times. The first story took place in 2009, after the Sudan government expelled more than one dozen aid agencies from Darfur, which had been torn apart by the genocidal military campaigns of the regime for years.

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A few of us human rights activists went with some members of Congress to the Sudan Embassy in Washington to protest its decisions. When Lewis showed up, we knew that we were on stronger ground. So when the cops tried to disperse us and we would not leave, we were all arrested and held in two cells, with the men in one and the women in the other. For the next few hours in jail, we sat and listened to Lewis regale us with stories of the Freedom Riders and events of tremendous significance in our history.

Other members of Congress stayed deferential to their elder statesman, absorbing his lessons next to everyone else in the cell. We all learned so much about courage and perseverance from Lewis that day. For the rest of his life, he solidified his commitment to causes in Africa, like this one that sent us to that jail. Like Martin Luther King, he saw that the struggle for civil rights and human dignity was also an international struggle.

The second story had a nicer setting than the jail cell. We were on a boat in the San Francisco Bay in 2018, invited by the International Congress of Youth Voices, a group of people from all over the world brought together with support from writer Dave Eggers. Lewis was the keynote speaker. As you might imagine, he had the audience in the palm of his hand the entire time, sending his commitment to racial justice and transformative change into the hearts of everyone who attended this conference that day.

Before his beautiful talk, something happened that is not necessarily earth shattering, but it is definitely worth recounting. Lewis had arrived with his trademark humble way, slipping in quietly without any fanfare, and taking a seat at a table with some students from Africa. He stayed there for hours telling them stories, answering their questions, and raising up their spirits. It was a memory I am sure neither the students nor I will ever forget.

His kindness and compassion were evident in everything he told us. Lewis modeled what he stood for all these decades in that one conversation. He never pulled out his phone to check messages and never gave a hint there was any place more important than sitting right there with those students in that moment. It demonstrated the love and the faith that shaped his life until the very end. Lewis believed the challenges were so great that there could be lots of work left to do beyond his time on earth, so he took each opportunity he could to establish the next generation of advocates.

May he rest in peace and power. He made the world so much better and inspired many of us to take forward his work in all its manifestations.

John Prendergast founded The Sentry with George Clooney. He wrote a book “Congo Stories: Battling Five Centuries of Exploitation and Greed.”