Shut in and unable to travel in 2020, it’s through images of others that we’ve been able to see what was happening in other places. Our feeds, newspapers and newscasts were awash in a sea of pictures of natural disasters, brutality, protests and devastation, along with images of solidarity and contemplation. Each of them told a story. But none told a tale as powerful or important as the image of John Lewis’s coffin, atop a horse-drawn wagon, crossing over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. It was July 26 of a year so many would like to forget.
John Lewis had died nine days earlier, at the apex of a reckoning that had pushed the United States into confronting the injustices and sins of its past and present.
Long before the invention of hashtags, John Lewis reminded us that Black lives mattered. For the 2020 American presidential election, basketball great LeBron James launched More Than A Vote, an initiative that mobilized voters and organized voter registration. Lewis was a pioneer of this essential exercise—one he had been at since the 1960s and continued to practice until his last breath.
John Lewis was instrumental in the adoption of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
It ensured that all Black people in the United States could vote. But after witnessing these guarantees slowly go up in smoke, Lewis—flanked by other leading voices of the Democratic Party—introduced a bill for the restoration of the Act. And in a display of great clairvoyance and laser-sharp acuity, Lewis—- while on Capitol Hill—declared that “there are forces in America today trying to take us back to another time.”
If Ted Kennedy was the lion of the Senate, then John Lewis was its conscience. Everywhere Lewis stood became a pulpit and everything he said was as sacred as a prayer.
Just before his death, the Congressman penned an editorial he’d asked the New York Times to publish on the day of his funeral on July 30, 2020. The op-ed was a history lesson, a love letter, and a blueprint. In it, Lewis provided the following instruction: “Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.”
John Lewis’s remark about America is applicable anywhere in the world. That extraordinary vision? Most of us have it. And the quest for the redemption of a nation, for equality and justice for all, should be a dream we never cease to chase.
One day, while sitting in the backseat of a taxi stuck in traffic, I noticed a mural depicting three titans: Nelson Mandela, Pelé and John Lewis. This was in Rio de Janeiro, en route to my hotel. Not long after seeing it, one of my best friends—a Parisian from a long line of Bretons—told me that John Lewis was his hero.
Lewis was American but his influence knew no borders, transcending politics and language, and his fight continues to be universal. Even if he didn’t intend to become one, John Lewis is a star. That’s good news for us, as he will shine forever.
*This essay is dedicated to Olivier Royant, a Parisian from a long line of Bretons, who passed away on December 31, 2020.
Author : Martine St-Victor