They’re such simple and humble words from a man considered a civil rights icon. And having your head clubbed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on “Bloody Sunday” seems so much more than “trying to help out.”
But Lewis speaks with authenticity — such authenticity that it hints at something wistful and intangible missing in our leadership, cultural and civic direction of today.
We want change. We want it now. Meanwhile so many of our leaders court power, influence, and recognition. Lewis sincerely wants to help.
From the conference room of The Philadelphia Tribune, a place whose 130-plus-year-history he acknowledges, Lewis recounts the ways in which he practiced and demonstrated peace: “We would be sitting at a lunch counter and someone would come up and spit on us, or come up and put a (cigarette) light out in our hair, or down our backs. We would just sit and wait to be served.”
There are no more John Lewises walking this earth. Biographers call him the last of the “Big 6” – a term applied to the leaders of the nation’s major civil rights and racial justice organizations, particularly during the hey day of the Civil Rights Movement.
They included: Lewis, of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee); Martin Luther King, Jr. of SCLC’s (Southern Christian Leadership Conference); James Farmer of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality); Roy Wilkins of the NAACP; Whitney Young of the National Urban League; and A. Phillip Randolph of the Negro American Labor Council and Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
The National Museum of American History’s website recounts how these six planned the 1963 March on Washington: They “met at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York to announce a march demanding jobs and freedom. The group appointed Randolph the march director and (Bayard) Rustin his principal deputy. In just eight weeks, they proposed to hold the largest demonstration in American history.”
When Lewis speaks of the items and materials from which he still draws inspiration — photographs of Marian Anderson, Lena Horne, George Washington Carver and Paul Robeson — you realize that Lewis himself is a walking testament to the example we can all set.
He was in town earlier last week to accept the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center, and on this day is touting the strengths of the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, someone whose supposed warmth, I imply, does not always come across on the campaign trail.
“You ask the African-American members of Congress, especially the women — she can joke with you and cry with you and laugh with you,” Lewis offers.
History may never give way to another Big 6. We are fortunate to have encountered the one who is John Lewis.