Eating Soup With John Lewis

The icon didn’t live to see his vision for racial justice achieved, despite what cynical politicians want us to believe

Many lovely and important tributes have been shared in the days since the passing of Rep. John Lewis (here is one, here is another). And rightfully so. He was a bonafide hero and selfless public servant. It’s extraordinary for a prominent Black hero of the civil rights movement to survive the era, let alone live a long life and achieve a seat of power in our nation’s Congress.

I worry, however, that the death of Lewis puts greater distance between America and the racial equality and justice he spent his days fighting for. It’s easier to convince the comfortable that the civil rights movement’s mission has been achieved when there are fewer and fewer leaders from that era alive to remind us that it has, in fact, not been. That the fight goes on. That apathy is regression. And that the deep roots of White supremacy are enmeshed in the fiber of our politics and culture. America is still very much a work in progress.

He appeared, sat at the table right next to mine, hung his head and closed his eyes in a moment that appeared to be a brief prayer, and ate a small bowl of soup.

It is easier for people like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to divorce his words commemorating the death of Lewis from his actions during the life of Lewis. Politics is already a cynical game, but few things are more cynical than honoring a dead man — while you actively worked against the ideals and policies that dead man tried to bend America toward — in the hope that some of his shine will rub off on you. The more McConnell can convince people that Lewis accomplished his vision for racial equality, the more easily he can kneel on the necks of Black people by suppressing their ability to vote for leaders who represent their interests and sustaining the oppressive systems terrorizing Black communities.

I have two distinct memories of John Lewis.

The first is from a hot summer night at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. Lewis spoke on the same night Barack Obama would accept the Democratic party’s nomination for the presidency. It was a surreal moment to sit among 84,000 people in reverent attention, in a stadium usually filled with roaring football fans.

That evening he reminded his congregants (of the stadium Mile High) that Obama’s nomination — historic and important as it was — was not the civil rights dream fulfilled:

Tonight, we have gathered here in this magnificent stadium in Denver because we still have a dream. As a participant in the civil rights movement, I can tell you the road to victory will not be easy. Some of us were beaten, arrested, taken to jail, and some of us were even killed trying to register to vote.

But with the nomination of Sen. Barack Obama tonight, the man who will lead the Democratic Party in its march toward the White House, we are making a major down payment on the fulfillment of that dream. We prove that a dream still burns in the hearts of every American, that this dream was too right, too necessary, too noble to ever die.

But this night is not an ending. It is not even a beginning. It is the continuation of a struggle that began centuries ago in Lexington and Concord, in Gettysburg and Appomattox, in Farmville, Virginia, and Topeka, Kansas, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and Selma, Alabama.

Democracy is not a state. It is an act. It is a series of actions we must take to build what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the beloved community — a society based on simple justice that values the dignity and the worth of every human being.

We’ve come a long way, but we still have a distance to go. We’ve come a long way, but we must march again.

My second experience with Lewis occurred just a couple of years ago, while I was eating lunch in the Longworth cafeteria between meetings on Capitol Hill. It was late in the afternoon, and the cafeteria was mostly vacant. He appeared, sat at the table next to mine, hung his head and closed his eyes in a moment that appeared to be a brief prayer, and ate a small bowl of soup.

I debated whether to say hello or introduce myself. As I got up to leave, I leaned over and said, “Congressman Lewis, before I go, I just wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done for this country.” He extended his hand, smiled, gave mine a firm shake, and said, “Thank you, young man.” And then he ate some more soup.

Today, I am especially grateful for that brief exchange. It serves as a tender reminder that the dream for racial equality is not fulfilled in America. That there are many alive today who suffered the indignities and violence of anti-Black racism during the height of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and even more who currently suffer the consequences of White politicians who make empty tributes to the heroes of the ’60s after decades of undermining their work. There is so much more to do. And we are lucky for trailblazers like John Lewis who showed us the way.

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