Goodbye, John Lewis

By Josie Gonsalves
Facilitator, Writer and Speaker on Racial Justice;
Nonprofit Expert, and Adjunct

It was a rare encounter on the New York City IRT train from Manhattan to Brooklyn on a mid-week evening in 2013. I was amid a reverie when I recognized him sitting directly across from me on an empty train car: John Lewis, the last of the those who spearheaded and fought in the deep trenches of the civil rights war of the 1960s. An era seared into the minds and hearts of those who study and practice freedom fighting. A period ever more ephemeral and prescient today.

As dapper as ever in a navy blue fitted suit, crisp white shirt, and a signature blue tie, with eyes that twinkled youthful joy, he sat comfortably as any other transit commuter heading home after work. Our eyes locked.

I said, “Sir, what brings you on this train tonight?”

John Lewis responded, “On the way to Midtown Comics for my latest publication”.

I said, “Awesome! My sister is a huge fan.”

He said, “Then, come on!”

We chatted a bit longer; then the train pulled into the designated stop. We got off. We talked more and laughed a bit as we briskly walked to the destination. In through a side door and up a narrow staircase, John Lewis skipped. It was a small but spirited group that awaited him.

John Lewis, who sits among the great freedom fighters of his generation, joined the struggle for Black liberation as a teenager: beaten up but never beaten down. He marched for justice. He spoke the truth. He called for liberation. He never wavered. He never baulked. He never walked away. In the words of Mr. Lewis, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” The age-old lesson embodied in a young man who placed his body against power: he kept showing up and showing up daring arrogance and hate to count him out.

Courage comes not easy, and when it does, it is demanding and unrelenting; but for those for whom it is intrinsic, it is sublime. John Lewis was the epitome of courage. He stood shoulders above millions, yet on the shoulders of those gone before him who made a path upon which he, too, spilt blood so we could march and beckon courage with each footstep. Each of us must locate and activate our moral imperative against the injustice manifests in a racialized war if we are to endure the centuries-long battle for freedom and liberation. It calls for young and old to move shoulder to shoulder and confront the tyranny that ever reigns.

This moment of the struggle for justice demands and an equal measure of courage and precision without vacillation. In the words of Frantz Fanon, “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it in opacity.”