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Remembering John Lewis, in his own words

Political Theater, Episode 136

Civil rights icon and Georgia Rep. John Lewis recounts his experience in Selma, Ala., to a group of students gathered on the House steps in April 2015.
Civil rights icon and Georgia Rep. John Lewis recounts his experience in Selma, Ala., to a group of students gathered on the House steps in April 2015. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It can be difficult to memorialize people who are larger than life. Since Rep. John Lewis died on July 17, his colleagues have invoked his name and honored him in floor speeches, news conferences and personal conversations. But the Georgia Democrat’s own words, spanning from such cultural touchstones as the 1963 March on Washington to more private gatherings, also serve as a fitting memorial.

Lewis, who was first elected to represent the Atlanta area in 1986, had already secured a place in history before coming to Capitol Hill.

A seminal figure in the civil rights era, he led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was a Freedom Rider, spoke at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and was nearly beaten to death in 1965 at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where he was leading marchers to the state Capitol in Montgomery.

During his long career in public service, from the Carter administration to the halls of Congress, he never stopped fighting injustice wherever he saw it.

He had a way of framing politics in human and moral terms, and he was widely regarded as the “conscience of Congress.”

And the way Lewis himself spoke was as remarkable for its soaring rhetoric as the way he delivered it — in the cadences of a preacher from the Deep South. That was the vocation the young John Lewis thought he might go into before he dedicated his life to the politics and policies of his time, to getting into what he called “good trouble.”

No stage was too big for him, and no venue too small to matter.

He even took the time to speak to members of this newsroom, back in 2015. Roll Call and CQ were celebrating their 60th and 70th anniversaries then, and we did what all good newsrooms know how to do: We threw a party.

Lewis was gracious enough to accept our invitation to speak at that shindig. And as anyone who saw him in such situations can attest, he commanded the room with charm and grace, told some familiar jokes, put everyone at ease — and then delivered a message about our history, his history, civil rights, some contemporary issues and, always, always, a reminder that there was more work to do, and he wanted to be a part of it.

Show Notes:

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