Artist Brian Andreas has one of my all-time favorite quotes on a print I own: “Anyone can slay a dragon, he told me, but try waking up every morning & loving the world all over again. That's what takes a real hero.”
I’ve thought about that line as I have reflected on the life of Rep. John Lewis. He was born and raised right down the road from me, yet Lewis may as well have grown up a million miles from the world we live in now. This is in large part thanks to the courageous efforts of people like him. Lewis not only named the injustice he saw toward African-Americans, he laid his life on the line constantly fighting it. Over his career, Lewis was arrested over 40 times protesting injustice in our country. He was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders. He was threatened and beaten within an inch of his life several times, most notably on Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, as he and others attempted to march to Montgomery to protest a lack of voting rights.
Through the years of abuse he suffered, the years of seeing no progress and then finally slow progress for civil rights, Lewis never gave up, and he never saw what he did as anything more than his civic duty to name and protest injustice. His 80 years of life are a profile in courage that will be studied for the remainder of human history.
And through it all, John Lewis refused to be bitter. He refused to see his fellow man as evil, instead focusing on evil systems and evil ideologies that oppressed one group and entrapped the oppressors in their own sickness of soul. John Lewis wanted everyone liberated, the oppressed and the oppressor.
As I drove to Selma a few years ago to take part in the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, I listened to Lewis being interviewed on the radio. He told the story of an older man from South Carolina who brought his son with him to Lewis’ office in Washington. The man came to tell Lewis he had taken part in beating Lewis over 40 years earlier, a beating that nearly cost Lewis his life. He had come to confess to him and, in front of his son, ask for Lewis’ forgiveness. Lewis brought the man and his son in and hugged them. He forgave the man, and together the three of the stood there and cried. Lewis said of that moment, “This man and I don’t want to go back; we want to move forward.”
Few in our lifetime have slayed as many dragons as John Lewis. We are all forever in his debt. Nevertheless, he woke up every day with a profound sense of love for the world and his fellow man. That’s what takes a real hero.
Nathan Dickson is an attorney with Jinks, Crow & Dickson, P.C.