One day in late July, John Lewis sat a few feet from a statue of Rosa Parks, the woman whose courage sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. On the dais with him in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall were the leaders of both houses of Congress, there to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
Lewis was working both his jobs that afternoon: civil rights icon and member of Congress. These days, more than ever, those dual roles put Lewis — one of the most prominent veterans of the civil rights era, and the only one with a vote in Congress — in near-constant demand.
Tomorrow, as the last living speaker of the 1963 march, he will address a rally from the same Lincoln Memorial steps where he delivered a fiery, controversial call for revolution 50 years ago.
There are those who critique his record as a legislator, saying all the speaking engagements divert his focus from the Fifth Congressional District and legislative nitty-gritty. But even they are quick to praise his role in history, especially his courage in the face of police truncheons in Selma, Ala., in 1965.
He has earned rare respect and deference from both parties in the Capitol. The Senate unanimously passed a resolution this year to honor him. At the Statuary Hall ceremony, Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner sang Lewis’ praises.
In effect, Atlanta’s Democratic congressman belongs to the nation now.
Lewis spoke last at that July event, his booming voice ricocheting off the marble statues. And he made it clear that he’s in no hurry to become one of them — a revered but harmless and decorative figure.
“We have come a great distance since that day, but many of the issues that gave rise to that march are still pressing needs in our society — violence, poverty, hunger, long-term unemployment, homelessness, voting rights and the need to protect human dignity,” Lewis rumbled. “We have come a great distance, but we are not finished yet.”
Fifty years ago, about a half hour before Lewis was scheduled to speak at the Lincoln Memorial, a backstage powwow formed around the 23-year-old head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
There were a few phrases in his speech that the old guard of the movement — and the White House — did not like. In particular, Lewis planned to invoke the name of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, whose march to the sea still rankled white Southerners a century later.
“John, this doesn’t sound like you,” pleaded Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Their demands “incensed” him, he says now. Nevertheless, he said, “I couldn’t say no to Dr. King. I couldn’t say no to (march organizer) A. Philip Randolph.”
Even softened, the speech was a powerful indictment of both political parties’ inaction on civil rights.
“Where’s our party?” Lewis demanded of the estimated 250,000 marchers gathered on the National Mall.
Then, he was the upstart, the son of an Alabama sharecropper who was on the front lines of the Nashville sit-ins and suffered brutal attacks during the 1961 Freedom Rides. He represented a youth movement more aggressive than the NAACP or Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
He chafed at demands from old-line leaders that SNCC suspend demonstrations to let the political or legal process run its course. As it turned out, street action proved crucial to inspiring political action, notably when the horrifying police assault in Selma led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The generation gap is reversed now. It in those younger than himself that Lewis sometimes sees complacency or an insufficient sense of history.
“I have this feeling and this sense that many of the young people today do not grasp the meaning and significance of the way we did things — the understanding of the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence,” Lewis said, sitting in his Capitol Hill office, crowded with a museum’s worth of photos and mementos of the movement.
Lewis leads a trip each February to Selma to retrace his steps over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He brings along members of Congress of all political persuasions, schooling them in the movement’s history and precepts.
A southern U.S. Senator whom Lewis declined to name told Lewis that he would have voted differently on civil rights issues had he taken the trip sooner. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, cited the Selma trip in saying he wanted to work with Lewis on a new voting rights law after the Supreme Court struck down key sections of the 1965 act.
Committee leaders plan to introduce such a bill in next month — an exercise many analysts consider futile, given Congress’ partisan divide. Lewis does not have dominion over the legislative avenues it must take, but his voice will be as powerful as any in pushing it forward.
“He is in a tremendous position to … expose them, inform them, through the power of his person and what he went through,” said Patricia Sullivan, a professor at the University of South Carolina and expert on the civil rights movement. “He risked his life.”
Lewis-the-icon is beyond reproach, but that doesn’t always insulate Lewis-the-legislator.
Conservative WSB-Radio host and former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain said Lewis marginalizes himself by reflexively siding with Democrats.
“We’re not in the civil rights movement right now. This nation is in a mess economically and a mess politically,” Cain said. “Frankly, I don’t think he is as enthused in solving the problems that we have, because he’s so tied to the Democrats ideologically.”
Mike Hassinger, an Atlanta-area Republican political consultant and contributor to the Peach Pundit blog, said Lewis is more symbol than lawmaker.
“He is sort of this moral scold and people pay homage and deference, I guess, to his stature from the civil rights era, but they don’t look to him to lead on current legislation or current initiatives,” Hassinger said.
But others say Lewis’ influence is real — if not always visible.
“He was out front 50 years ago,” said C. Randall Nuckolls, a Washington-based lobbyist with McKenna Long & Aldridge who has worked with Lewis since he first arrived in Congress. “In his legislating, I don’t think he feels like he has to be out front always.”
In any case, he can likely stay in office as long as he chooses to. The Fifth has re-elected him by huge margins ever since his upset win over fellow civil rights figure Julian Bond in 1986.
Beyond voting rights, Lewis wants the House to pass an immigration overhaul to give a path to citizenship for people living in the U.S. illegally. And he’s pressing for action on jobs, perhaps in the form of funding for summer jobs programs in local communities.
Those priorities are uphill battles in the Republican-run House, but Lewis is also invested in the bipartisan, under-the-radar work of rewriting the federal tax code. One of the senior Democrats on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, Lewis is co-leading a task force on charitable deductions.
He also touts federal grant money flowing into the Fifth, much of it going to the universities.
“We rely on him for his seniority and for the depth of his support for research opportunities, and particularly for the agencies that fund Emory’s peer-reviewed research,” said Wright Caughman, Emory’s executive vice president for health affairs.
Lewis said he advances such interests, in part, by leveraging his status as an in-demand speaker on the civil rights movement. Once he’s traveled to a colleague’s district to speak, it’s harder for them to vote against projects he favors.
His travel schedule is already filling up for 2014 and 2015, when there will be still more civil rights semi-centennials. The pace can be draining, but Lewis – whose wife, Lillian, died Dec. 31 – has no plans to ease up.
Critics “think I’m a relic of the past, a piece of something that should be looked up on in a museum, but I’m not that,” Lewis said.
“I still try to be as involved as possible and continue to push and pull because I’m not 23 no more. I’m 73, yes. People want to think that: ‘Why do you continue to work? Why you continue to push?’ It’s my calling, my mission.”