Remembering Congressman John Lewis’s beautiful legacy

Last night, our country suffered a huge blow with the loss of our leader and our hero, Congressman John Lewis. I had several occasions to meet Congressman Lewis, but the last one made a deep impression on me that immediately came to mind when I heard the news.  

On June 22, 2019, Congressman Lewis was the keynote speaker at the Arthur Ashe Boulevard Dedication Ceremony at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.  He scrapped his prepared remarks to reflect on 400 years of the African American experience and admonished us to save our democracy in a powerful speech. He declared: “Never, ever give up. Never ever get lost in a sea of despair. Keep the faith. Keep your eyes on the prize… We’ve come too far and we’re not going back!” 

Afterwards, I was honored to sit beside Congressman Lewis at a lunch, where we talked about his work with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and my work to keep his legacy alive through the Virginia Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission.

As he was leaving, I was asked to escort him to a Virginia Museum of Fine Arts exhibit at the Confederate Memorial Chapel. The installation featured an audio recording of the speech he gave during the final debate on the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. The intention of the piece was to speak to “the long history of divisive politics in America and the power of reconciliation.” As I watched him listen to the sound of his booming voice, delivering a speech he had not heard since he gave it that day in 1998, I was overcome with emotion and felt tears streaming down my face. I thought about how incredible it was to sit with a man who had seen and suffered so much in order to make this country more equitable — a country in which I could now serve in the Virginia General Assembly to continue his work. How beautiful that despite all the hate he’d seen, he never lost hope that love and unity could make America a better place. 

Here is the speech we listened to together:

“Today is a very sad day for this House. This morning when I got up, I wanted to cry, but the tears would not come. Before we cast this one little vote, we all should ask the question, is this good for America? Is this good for the American people? Is this good for this institution? When I was growing up in rural Alabama during the 40’s and the 50’s as a young child, near a shotgun house where my aunt lived, one afternoon an unbelievable storm occurred. The wind started blowing. The rain fell on the tin-top roof of this house.

“Lightning started flashing, the thunder started rolling. And my aunt asked us all to come into this house and to hold hands, and we held hands… And as the rain continued to blow, we would walk to that corner of the house that was trying to lift, and another corner tried to lift and we would walk there. We never left the house. The wind may blow, the thunder may roll, the lightning may flash, but we must never leave the American house. We must stay together as a family, one house, one family, the American house, the American family…”

Today is a very sad day for America. This morning, we want to cry. But we will stay in this house we’ve built and fight for it to become stronger and more just — and we’ll do it in his honor. 

Rest in power, John Lewis. Thank you for getting into good trouble.

With love,
Jenn McClellan