For John Lewis, we will carry on
The first time I met John Lewis, in 2003, it was as the new girlfriend of his colleague in the House of Representatives. He had just sat down at his assigned seat in a room full of dinner tables, but as soon as he saw Sherrod and me walking toward him, John stood up and pulled me into a hug.
“You’re the reason he can’t stop smiling,” John said.
I flushed and blubbered some denial. He stepped back and held me at arms-length with both hands. “You think I’m just saying that,” he said. “I’m telling you that my friend’s life has changed because you are in it.”
He waved Sherrod away and pointed to an empty seat next to him. “Come sit with me. Let’s get to know each other.”
I couldn’t quite believe what was happening. I knew John Lewis as a civil rights icon, someone I had hoped to thank one day for his life of courage. Surely, we must have talked about that, but the only discussion of ours that made it into my journal later that evening involved our mutual love for flea markets.
“I like discovering things that someone else thinks aren’t worth keeping,” he said, his voice suddenly animated as he turned to face me. “I love imagining the stories that go with them. The people.”
He fell silent, and I waited.
“When I’m at a flea market,” he finally said, “I don’t think about anything else. It takes me away for a little while. We all need that, don’t you think?”
“Even John Lewis sometimes needs a break,” I wrote that night. “What a relief to know that.”
I saw John numerous times after that, always as a lucky bystander, except the time I called to talk to him about the 2008 election. The primary season had ended, and Barack Obama was the Democratic nominee. In Ohio, as in most of the country, racism was the ever-present issue. I was a syndicated columnist working at The Plain Dealer, and I was struggling with how to reach those white voters who shared my working-class roots but not my politics.
“How do I reach their hearts?” I asked John. He folded his hands together and slowly shook his head. “We don’t need their hearts, Connie. We need them to do the right thing.”
John’s words had a profound impact on my thinking and on my column-writing. There were solid policy reasons to support Barack Obama, and those were the argument to make.
On the 50th anniversary of the voting rights march in Selma, Alabama, Sherrod and I joined a delegation led by John Lewis to return to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where John had nearly been beaten to death by Gov. George Wallace’s state troopers. We had done this with John before, but this time was different. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama would join John on stage, and I was grateful for the off-camera time on the flight before we landed.
My favorite photo on that day is of John standing in the aisle talking to Sherrod, who was seated and hanging on his every word. We were not unique in attracting his attention. During the flight, John made his way up and down the plane, talking to virtually everyone on board.
John was still in Selma the next day, long after the Obamas and much of the media had departed. Peggy Wallace Kennedy, the 65-year-old daughter of George Wallace, stood on the steps of the Alabama Capitol and — in a soft, sometimes quivering voice — renounced the acts of hate committed there by her father.
“My friend,” John called her. “My sister.” Kennedy told me that, later, he whispered in her ear, “Your father would be very proud of you today.”
“That’s all he had to say,” she said. “That was all I needed to hear.”
On the flight home, we were all exhausted. Even John leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes for a bit.
But then we landed.
My final memory of John on that trip is watching him as he stood in baggage claim, surrounded by a swarm of strangers. No TV cameras, no news photographers. Just John and dozens of admirers who wanted to shake his hand or hug him. Each time another person held up a phone for a selfie, John leaned into them and smiled.
He was entitled to be more tired than any of us, but John was always John. We must carry on, he assured them, over and over. We must carry on.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist.