The word “hero” gets tossed around so much these days. Someone joined the military? They’re automatically a “hero” before they have done a single thing. It dilutes the word until it’s almost meaningless.
True heroes are few and far between. Yesterday we lost one of those heroes, Rep. John Lewis. For those who don’t know him (shame on your teachers!), he was an icon of the American Civil Rights movement. In fact, he was the last surviving speaker from the March on Washington in 1963, the event in which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech.
In 1965 he led the march to demand voting rights that was to start in Selma, Alabama, and go all the way to the capital, Montgomery. However, as they were leaving Selma and crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were met by 150 state troopers, who demanded that the march disband. The marchers stopped advancing, and stood in place. About a minute later, they began to be attacked by the state troopers with club, whips, and tear gas. Lewis himself suffered a fractured skull at the hands of the troopers. This attack became known as Bloody Sunday, and was the subject of a Federal investigation, in which Lewis testified about the events. Here is an excerpt from that hearing:
Lewis: . . . a State Trooper made announcement on a bullhorn or megaphone, and he said, “This march will not continue.” Hall: What happened then; did the line stop? Lewis: The line stopped at that time. Hall: You stopped still? Lewis: Yes, sir. Hall: You didn’t advance any further? Lewis: We stopped right then.
Hall: Then what happened? Lewis: He said, “I am Major Cloud, and this is an unlawful assembly. This demonstration will not continue. You have been banned by the Governor. I am going to order you to disperse.” Hall: What did you then do? Lewis: Mr. Williams said, “Mr. Major, I would like to have a word, can we have a word?” And he said, “No, I will give you two minutes to leave.” And again Mr. Williams said, “Can I have a word?” He said, “There will be no word.” And about a minute or more Major Cloud ordered the Troopers to advance, and at that time the State Troopers took their position, I guess, and they moved forward with their clubs up over their—near their shoulder, the top part of the body; they came rushing in, knocking us down and pushing us. Hall: And were you hit at that time? Lewis: At that time I was hit and knocked down. Hall: Where were you hit? Lewis: I was hit on my head right here. Hall: What were you hit with? Lewis: I was hit with a billy club, and I saw the State Trooper that hit me. Hall: How many times were you hit? Lewis: I was hit twice, once when I was lying down and was attempting to get up. Hall: Do we understand you to say you were hit . . . and then attempted to get up, and were hit—and was hit again. Lewis: Right
This event marked a turning point in the civil rights struggle, and six months later President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. Johnson gave Lewis one of the pens used to sign that act, and Lewis proudly displayed that pen on the wall of his office in Congress, where he served for nearly 34 years until his death.
So imagine my surprise when I was returning from a conference in Atlanta a few years ago and saw him in the airport! I approached him, shook his hand, and thanked him for all he had done to make this country a better place. He was very gracious, and I didn’t keep him any longer. I immediately texted my wife to tell her my exciting news, and while she shared my excitement, she chastised me for not getting a photo. I really didn’t want to bother the man at the time, so I was fine with just meeting him in person.
A little while later I was heading to the men’s room to empty my water bottle before going through security, and I saw him in front of the entrance, taking a selfie with a custodian (who was clearly thrilled). So I approached him once more, blaming my wife for shaming me into taking a selfie. He was more than happy to do so, and…
I’m not ashamed to admit that I was so in awe of meeting him that I rushed the shot, and the result was a blurry photo. Me, the big-shot photographer, screwing up an easy selfie!
Thank you once again, John Lewis, for all that you’ve done. You truly are a hero.