John Lewis died Friday night. He was 80 years old. For the last couple of months he’d been battling Stage IV pancreatic cancer, but his pain is gone and his fight is through. If anyone earned his rest, it’s him. Georgia lost a two-decade fighter in the House of Representatives, the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s lost its sole surviving lion, and we lost what might have been the Last American Hero.
Who else is there? I’m not saying they’re not there. I’m just saying that I don’t see them as readily as I saw John Lewis. That may have more to do with me being middle-aged and crazy than anything to do with the rest of the world. I do feel sometimes that the world has left me behind, but I don’t mind. It’s the way of things.
As is death. A good friend of mine, while soaked with the wisdom that comes only from the bottom of the bottle, said years ago that life is people you love and admire dying when you’re least prepared, and you’re never prepared. John Lewis had a long life, a life well-lived, and he got into plenty of “good trouble” along the helping make the United States get closer to what it always claimed to be.
As did C.T. Vivian, the minister and former lieutenant of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He died earlier Friday at the admirable age of 95. Like Lewis and Dr. King, he stomped the terra and walked the walk, putting his body and health on the line in defense of his ideals where most of us shirk away and hope someone else does it. Such people are rare, especially in a world that’s decided big-time columnists pulling down six figures are “oppressed” when hoi polloi don’t show due deference.
I admit I’m not as familiar with Bro. Vivian as I am with Rep. Lewis. My obsession with politics influences and trumps my fascination with history any day of the week, and I’ve been keen on Rep. Lewis since I moved to the Athens area over 20 years ago. And even though it’s been over a decade since I called North Georgia home, I still keep an eye on things there. Same with Florida, same as I did when I was out of Mississippi, the same that I now do with New Orleans. If it was where I hung my hat once, there’s always a piece of me there and a piece of it with me.
And as far as politics goes, Rep. Lewis was a fascinating figure, maybe even one of the few politicians worth admiring. Don’t get it twisted. I still adhere to H.L. Menken’s dictum: “The only way a reporter should look at a politician is down.” I’ve said a number of times that I had to avoid Barack Obama when he spoke because his brand of political juju worked on me and clouded my judgment. The same thing happened with Rep. Lewis. I know that like anyone who’s spent any time in Washington he had his flaws, but I’m not sure I can be objective enough to dig through them.
So I won’t. Nor will I tussle with any parts of Bro. Vivian’s legacy that might not square up like I’d wish. Nor have I come to praise either of them any more than I already admittedly have. Mitch McConnel “expresses grief” while actively working to limit voting rights. Donald Trump – or one of his lackeys – puts out some puff that he doesn’t bother to proofread. Marco Rubio posting a picture of him with Elijah Williams to honor Lewis, neatly encapsulating the conservative opinion of Black America. There are plenty of hypocrites, we don’t need another.
I haven’t looked yet, but I wonder what Rep. Lewis thought of the Thing we’re currently in the middle of. Does it match up with what he helped do in the ’60s? Does it fall short? Are the protestors approaching it in the proper way? Will anything substantial be accomplished? Which aspects of the Left are more of a hinderance than a help, centrist-leaning liberals or the “far left”? What about the Administration’s response and Republicans support of it? Are we teetering on the edge of facist authoritarianism or have we already crossed that line?
Well, we no longer have Rep. Lewis to answer those questions for us, so we have to do it. We’re at a crossroads in our society, I really do believe this, and we have to decided as a people what we want to be. I also really do believe that we as a society get far too hung up on Saviors, one special individual that will fix everything for us so we don’t have to do the work. Karl Popper was right, we really need to get past.
I’m reminded of what Joe Hill told Big Bill Heywood while he was waiting on a Utah firing squad to execute him for a crime he probably didn’t do. “Don’t waste time mourning,” he said. “Organize!” If we want to honor Rep. Lewis’ memory – as well as that of Bro. Vivian – we as a people have to take the reigns of our future away from those to greedy or scared or indigent or insolent to move out of the past.
Be the hero we lost. It’s up to you.