John Lewis seemed a little nervous, which surprised me.
It was 2015, and we were about to enter the mock Senate chamber at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Dorchester, where I was to interview the Georgia congressman about the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.
This man who had been arrested dozens of times in civil rights protests, and gone on to become a beloved colleague to two generations in Congress, whispered to me, “Young man, don’t make me look bad.” He had nothing to worry about.
The legendary civil rights warrior left us Friday night, sparking tributes that proclaimed him “the conscience of Congress.”
To me, that’s an understatement. John Robert Lewis was America’s conscience.
The room we entered that night was packed. There were luminaries, including past and future colleagues like Katherine Clark, Ayanna Pressley, and Marty Meehan. But there were also normal citizens who wanted to hear from a man who had come to embody the legacy of the civil rights movement.
We talked about voting, and protest, and staying engaged in the struggle. But, first, we talked about The Bridge.
On March 7, 1965, Lewis was badly beaten by Alabama state troopers during the first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery, a day immortalized as “Bloody Sunday.”
“I thought I saw death,” Lewis said. “I thought I was going to die. Fifty years later, I don’t recall how I made it off that bridge.”
That day at the Edmund Pettus Bridge was a seminal moment in the movement. Later that month, the march would occur, after federal intervention. Ultimately, 30,000 marchers would make the 80-mile trek from Selma to Montgomery to dramatize the importance of the right to vote.
During the two weeks in between, President Lyndon B. Johnson became a convert to the cause of a voting rights bill. He had previously rejected such a bill as too heavy a political lift, in the wake of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which had been fiercely opposed by Southern lawmakers.
Johnson announced his change of heart a few days after Bloody Sunday in a nationally televised speech, closing with the words, “We shall overcome.”
Lewis and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. watched the speech together at King’s home in Atlanta, overwhelmed by the moment.
“I looked over and King was crying,” Lewis recalled. “And then I started crying. It was the theme song of the movement. Dr. King said then, ‘We will make it from Selma to Montgomery.’ And he was right.”
Selma was a turning point, for Lewis and the country. But it was but one moment in a lifetime of activism.
Nearly two years earlier, he had been the youngest speaker at the March on Washington in August, 1963, the event that gave the world King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Lewis’s speech is now remembered as perhaps the most fiery of that day, but it would have been even more so, were it not for some last-minute editing by King and organizer A. Philip Randolph, who were concerned about holding together a fragile coalition of supporters.
“I had a line that said, ‘If we don’t see change, we may have to march through the South, like Sherman — but nonviolently!' " Lewis recalled with a chuckle. “Dr. King said, ‘Oh John, that doesn’t sound like you.' I wasn’t going to argue with Dr. King and A. Philip Randolph, men I loved and admired.”
If you asked him about being arrested 40 times in the 1960s, Lewis would point out that he had been arrested five times as a member of Congress. And he said it with a twinkle in his eye, as if his next arrest could be right around the corner.
If being arrested was the best way to advance an issue, so be it.
“Sometimes you have to find a way to dramatize the issue,” Lewis said that night in Dorchester. “You have to make it plain. You have to make it real.”
Lewis was a man of faith — deep and abiding faith in the American people, in the voters. He believed that the will of the people, democratically expressed, would lead to good outcomes. As a young organizer, he was famous for the phrase “One man, one vote.” But the struggle to make everyone’s vote and voice count remains a work in progress. Sometimes it feels like the wrong side is winning.
“There are forces in our country that want us to stand still or go back,” Lewis said. “We cannot go back. We’ve made too much progress. We’ve got to go forward.”
Lewis was certainly aware of the enormous esteem in which he was held. But he often deflected the praise that came his way — not in a phony, aw-shucks way, but sincerely. To those who said he changed Selma — where the annual commemoration of the march has become a pilgrimage for Democratic politicians — he would insist that he had received too much credit.
The real heroes, he said, weren’t him or even King. They were the people who lived here, who lived the reality of that oppression day in and day out. He had grown up on a farm less than 100 miles away, and knew well what thousands of people who aren’t in movies or history books sacrificed to fight for the freedom that was their birthright.
Lewis was eminent, but grounded. He was a warrior, but a man of peace. He was a man who had seen America’s darkness, but never lost an ounce of hope.
Those values, he said, came from King, and Rosa Parks, and his study of Gandhi. And maybe from his own life.
Toward the end of the session we did, a student from Regis College asked for some advice about being an activist.
Lewis told him to follow the dictates of his conscience, and always be prepared to speak out. Then he added something else.
“We all have to find a way to become more human — more kind, more thoughtful,” Lewis said. “Never become hostile, never become bitter. Keep the faith. It all will work out.”
Rest in peace, congressman. A grateful nation will miss you.