For the past several days, well-deserved tributes have poured in honoring the life and contributions of civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. The depth of his physical and moral courage in the face of beatings and brutal racism is beyond dispute. His steadfast commitment to nonviolent civil disobedience has been an inspiration for generations of Americans. He was an iconic leader of the most transformative movement of the 20th century.

There is little else that I can offer to attest to John Lewis’ legacy other than a brief personal encounter.

For several years my granddaughter Olivia and I would take a summer trip together — just the two of us. What started out as a day trip to Boothbay morphed into trips to Boston, New York and other locations, culminating in a week in Ireland.

One of our most memorable trips was to Washington, D.C., in 2008. In preparation for the trip to D.C. I decided to contact the office of Rep. Lewis to see if we could schedule some time to meet him. While the pretext for the request for this visit was my desire for Olivia to have the opportunity to meet a true American hero, I didn’t attempt to hide my own enthusiasm. To my pleasant surprise I received word that Rep. Lewis would be glad to meet with us on June 24.

I had plenty of time to brief Olivia on John Lewis’ life and accomplishments: his childhood in a family of sharecroppers in rural Alabama, the lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville, the Freedom Rides, his leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the March on Washington, the long and brutal movement to end segregation and Jim Crow, the voting rights struggles, Bloody Sunday in Selma, his association with the ill-fated presidential campaign of Robert Kennedy, his numerous beatings and arrests, and a distinguished career in the U.S. Congress.

It was hard to read Olivia’s interest as a 12-year-old, but I was convinced she would be impressed.

John Lewis’ public persona was inspiring, but there’s always apprehension that meeting a historic figure may be slightly deflating. Does the mere fact that he is willing to meet with some guy from Maine (not a constituent or a donor) and his granddaughter mean that he really is the generous, thoughtful person he appears to be?

Rep. Lewis invited us into his office and for the next 45 minutes we (at least I) were in awe of this warm, gentle, soft-spoken man who epitomized the civil rights movement and the fight for equal justice. With a large photo of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the background, he graciously answered questions about his career and told us stories about the struggles he had endured. We had a chance to chat about the prospects of Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential run that fall.

I brought my copy and my son’s copy of Lewis’ memoir “Walking with the Wind” and he inscribed both for us. He asked me to say hello to John Baldacci, since they used to occasionally walk to the Capitol together from the same D.C. neighborhood when Baldacci was in the House of Representatives with him.

He told us the story of a man who had participated in his beating during the Freedom Rides in Alabama. The man had apologized for his role in the beating and his virulent racism. Lewis forgave the man and rejoiced in his redemption.

His demeanor put us both at ease as we had the honor to be in the presence of this brave, remarkable yet humble man with no pretensions, no self-aggrandizement, and no personal agenda. Surely he must have recognized what an important figure he was in American history but he clearly never forgot where he came from. Any misgivings I may have had about finding my hero to be less admirable than I‘d hoped were quickly dismissed. If anything, the public persona of John Lewis did not do him justice.

Since he announced last December that he was diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer, we knew this day was coming. I am deeply saddened by his death but will forever treasure the time he spent with an average guy from Maine and his granddaughter. John Lewis was a kind man of rare courage and humility who never wavered from his convictions. His will be a legacy of moral authority, a champion of the oppressed and a true believer in America’s values.

In the midst of anxiety in this pandemic, I’d remind people of the sacrifices of Lewis and his colleagues who were beaten and murdered for the right to vote. Pay tribute to Lewis and do your democratic duty this November – vote!

John Lewis would be proud.

Frank A. Johnson is a resident of Augusta.


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