My Political Science class and my Philosophy class met a man who I consider to be “The Greatest Living American.” Congressman John Lewis is one of the giants of the Civil Rights era. Early on, he participated in sit-ins in Nashville and then became leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. It was in that capacity that he gave a hard-hitting speech at the March on Washington. His biggest achievement was bringing black people the right to vote in the South.
He marched for voting rights and, of course, was the leader when state troopers attacked him and other marchers in Selma, Alabama—on Bloody Sunday. Since then he has had a distinguished career in Congress. I brought my philosophy class along because, while I would teach the political science kids about his voting record and other political and governmental issues, I taught my Philosophy kids non-violent civil disobedience. That included lessons on Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and of course, John Lewis.
We were originally scheduled to see him in November 2002, but as our bus was crossing into D.C. the driver’s radio announced, “Due to threat of terrorist attack in Washington, D.C., all Fairfax County Public School field trips are cancelled. If you’re at an event or on your way please return to your school.” This young guy was driving, and he said to me, “You know, we’re in D.C., want me to radio back and say ‘they are already at their destination, I won’t see them until they get out?” I probably would have said yes, but on that trip was Herndon High Principal Jan Leslie, and there’s no way she would have gone along with that. We later found out that the guy who shot up the entrance to the CIA a few years earlier, Mir Aimal Kasi, was being executed that day and Al Qaeda had threatened D.C. So we turned around and went back to Herndon High…but we stopped at a Fuddrucker’s burger joint. The kids needed to have some fun on this aborted trip.
Take two. Since we were going to see an American hero and huge historical figure, I brought my oldest daughter Shannon and invited my friend Kevin to come along with his daughter Hannah. Also joining us was Herndon High librarian Diana Guilford who had attended the March on Washington as a 13 year old. We arrived at the Cannon House Office Building (CHOB). A member of Lewis’s staff, Eric, discussed what it was like to work with Rep. Lewis and then The Man showed up.
He had a dark suit and red tie, and though an older man, he still had a youthful look about him. He said hello to all “the children” and shook a few hands as he walked around the room. Then he said, “Look at all of you. Are you thirsty? Eric, go get these children some Coke and peanuts.” The Georgia Congressional delegation is big on giving away peanuts and Coke. Just like that, Eric was back with cans of cold Coke and airline style packages of peanuts.
Having read excerpts of his book Walking with the Wind, students were familiar with his background. Lewis recounted his youthful desire to become a preacher and the dangerous storm in which his mother told her kids to “walk with the wind” back and forth across their little house as it passed. I’m sure he has told that story and his subsequent stories about his participation in the Civil Rights era many times. His expansive remarks also included answers to questions students had prepared. His comments included:
I began to believe in the Spirit of History. I came to believe this force is on the side of what is good, of what is right and just. It is the essence of the moral force of the universe, and at certain points in life, in the flow of human existence and circumstances, this force, this spirit, finds you or selects you, it chases you down, and you have no choice; you must allow yourself to be used, to be guided by this force and to carry out what must be done.
America to me is not just the movement for civil rights, but the endless struggle to respond with decency, dignity and a sense of brotherhood to all the challenges that face us as a nation.
Be ashamed to leave this world having done nothing to improve the human condition. Do some good. Do something out of a sense of community, something that is aimed beyond yourself. And be ashamed if you do not.
And he responded to questions. Some of them:
What is your overall assessment of President [George W.] Bush?
Answer: Well you have put me on the spot. I think Bush is young, but not that young. I think Bush doesn’t quite get it. I’m thinking about writing him a nice letter like I did when his father was president.
Mr. Lewis, could you please explain to us the toughest vote you ever had to make?
Answer: The decision after 9/11 to vote for the war on terrorism. That was the most difficult for me.
As a congressman, do you still believe in disobeying an unjust law?
Answer: Yes, I always have and always will. You should never ever bow down to the social pressures of others. It’s just like Thoreau wrote, you should stand up for what you believe in. Always disobey any unjust law, no matter where
John Lewis is the living personification of history, freely offering knowledge, experience, and wisdom. It was captivating watching this living example of courage tell his story. I hope my students remember him.