Over the next week, we are going to read weighty remembrances banked by obituary writers years ago of John Lewis as legendary civil rights hero, Lewis as the last man standing, Lewis as a folk hero whose face should be stamped on coins, caught in the amber of a black-and-white photo from Selma in 1965.
Few will capture the goofy joy of watching Lewis cosplaying at DragonCon as John Lewis — wearing the same clothes from Selma, no less — merrily leading elementary school children on a Freedom March through the bowels of the Marriott and the Hyatt in downtown San Diego.
We’re talking about a man who liked to walk around Atlanta wearing a T-shirt with his own mugshot on it. He knew what he was and wrote a comic book about it, because he knew that mythmaking could be dangerous when it lets the rest of us off the hook.
Lewis and C.T. Vivian — a towering intellectual figure in the civil rights movement, every bit Lewis’s equal — are both dead on the same day, and Atlanta is collectively fidgeting with its hands. We don’t know what to do with ourselves. The city has had six months to get ready for this, and it’s still not ready for this. We’re posting selfies with Lewis on Facebook and telling stories about running into him at the mall or at Mary Mac’s Tea Room. It would all seem so infantilizing, so trivializing … except we are talking about John Lewis. So instead, it elevates us. It elevates these unexciting spaces, these common connections, these chances.
Atlanta meant a chance to meet John Lewis.
But Lewis was determinatively human and an accessible one for Atlantans. He didn’t serve in office for almost 40 years just because he bled in the street in Birmingham and half the South. A lot of people bled. But in a political environment that predictably sends politicians to jail, Lewis has never been credibly accused of an act of corruption. Lewis was never afraid to lead, even when he faced political risks. And Lewis never lost touch with his district or the people in it, which is why he had the courage to lead.
Never forget that Lewis — a preacher, representing voters who were fairly conservative theologically — announced his support for gay rights and marriage equality in 2003. Georgia’s Democrats lost the state house in 2004 in no small part to voter backlash, but Lewis stood firm, and his example pulled his district and ultimately the country through to greater justice.
Lewis understood how dangerous his sainthood could be, in that it made his sacrifices seem like folk tales without relevance to our current struggles.
What value is the legend if it is distant from the fierce urgency of now? I think Lewis understood how dangerous his sainthood could be, in that it made his sacrifices seem like folk tales without relevance to our current struggles.
Lewis’s dignity can be emulated. It cannot be appropriated.
This morning, Georgia Sen. David Perdue posted a picture with Lewis on Facebook, like half of Atlanta is doing. “No one embodied the word ‘courage’ better than John Lewis,” the caption read. “As a civil rights icon, John inspired millions of Americans to fight injustice and reject the status quo. Without a doubt, his wisdom and resolve made the world a better place.”
Perdue voted against reinstating the Civil Rights Act. That is how Perdue will be remembered.
Lewis, 80, served since January 6, 1987. He served on the Ways and Means Committee and chaired the Oversight Subcommittee. He was also the last of the Big Six, the last living person to have spoken at the Washington March of 1963. He was 23 years old and chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at the time.
The idea of finding a successor for Lewis has been so distasteful that, after talking with some senior members of the Democratic Party in Georgia, it’s clear that there hadn’t been an open and serious discussion about what to do when this day came, even though he announced his cancer diagnosis in December.
The Democratic Party has until Monday at 4:30 p.m. to name a replacement on the ballot. Party executives say they’re looking at the state law and the party bylaws to make sure their decision will stand a challenge, because whoever they name will almost certainly serve for the next two years and probably for the next 20.
The Democratic Party has two days to replace 33 years of experience and half a chapter in every history book in Atlanta.
There are obvious names to consider. Stacey Abrams narrowly lost the governor’s race in Georgia two years ago in a contest many Georgia Democrats consider questionable and has been talked up as a vice presidential contender. She would win the seat by acclamation, if she wants it. Fair Fight, the fair elections nonprofit she runs now, has raised more than $26 million since then, and she may not want to leave her post before the November elections.
Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin retains tremendous political and moral authority in Atlanta as an able steward of government. Franklin began to withdraw from the spotlight after the death of her son Cabral in 2015, though she remains active in the civic conversation.
Atlanta’s current mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, is also on the vice presidential short list. She is also trying to contain a pandemic and crime headlines in the city, amid Gov. Brian Kemp’s lawsuit demanding that the city keep businesses open and cancel mandatory public mask requirements.
State Sen. Nikema Williams, who represents much of the city of Atlanta and a significant chunk of Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, is also the state Democratic Party’s chair. She has expressed interest in serving in Congress before. The executive committee could elect her as the replacement.
In any case, they have two days to replace 33 years of experience and half a chapter in every history book in Atlanta.
I fantasized about Lewis sweeping in to mediate the conflicts in the street over police reform. I pictured him facing a line of riot cops with us. And then I remembered that people were doing that already, without him.
It’s easy enough to say that we need John Lewis more than ever. It’s harder, I think, to say that we must be John Lewis, and that this is achievable for you or I. That John Lewis’s courage is not an excuse for lacking our own.