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John Lewis’ Last Words

Credit: Ryon Horne

Georgia's John Lewis lies in state at the state capitol in Atlanta. The public had the opportunity to pay final tribute to Lewis.

Credit: Ryon Horne

I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe

Congressman John Lewis, who died on July 17, wrote this essay shortly before his death. He wanted it to be published on the day of his funeral. His staff provided a copy of the essay to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the morning of July 30, four hours before his 11 a.m. funeral was to start.

While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.

That is why I had to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, though I was admitted to the hospital the following day. I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on.

In this June 7, 2020 photo provided by the Executive Office of District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, Mayor Bowser and John Lewis look over a section of 16th Street that's been renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington.  The White House is in the background.  (Khalid Naji-Allah/Executive Office of the Mayor via AP)
In this June 7, 2020 photo provided by the Executive Office of District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, Mayor Bowser and John Lewis look over a section of 16th Street that's been renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington. The White House is in the background. (Khalid Naji-Allah/Executive Office of the Mayor via AP)

Credit: Khalid Naji-Allah

Credit: Khalid Naji-Allah

Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. He was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time. I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me. In those days, fear constrained us like an imaginary prison, and troubling thoughts of potential brutality committed for no understandable reason were the bars.

Though I was surrounded by two loving parents, plenty of brothers, sisters and cousins, their love could not protect me from the unholy oppression waiting just outside that family circle. Unchecked, unrestrained violence and government-sanctioned terror had the power to turn a simple stroll to the store for some Skittles or an innocent morning jog down a lonesome country road into a nightmare. If we are to survive as one unified nation, we must discover what so readily takes root in our hearts that could rob Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina of her brightest and best, shoot unwitting concertgoers in Las Vegas and choke to death the hopes and dreams of a gifted violinist like Elijah McClain.

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February 14, 2015 Selma, AL: Congressman John Lewis on the Edward Pettus Bridge February 14, 2015. 
 On March 7, 1965  Hosea Williams and John Lewis  led 600 civil rights activists across the Edward Pettus Bridge in a march for voting rights.  Lewis had no idea  the level of violence that awaited the group on the other side of the bridge. In what would become known around the country as as Bloody Sunday, state troopers and sheriff deputies used tear gas and clubs to break up the march.  Leaving Lewis with a skull fracture and sending more than 50 others to the local hospital for treatment.   BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM
February 14, 2015 Selma, AL: Congressman John Lewis on the Edward Pettus Bridge February 14, 2015. On March 7, 1965 Hosea Williams and John Lewis led 600 civil rights activists across the Edward Pettus Bridge in a march for voting rights. Lewis had no idea the level of violence that awaited the group on the other side of the bridge. In what would become known around the country as as Bloody Sunday, state troopers and sheriff deputies used tear gas and clubs to break up the march. Leaving Lewis with a skull fracture and sending more than 50 others to the local hospital for treatment. BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Credit: bsanderlin@ajc.com

Credit: bsanderlin@ajc.com

Like so many young people today, I was searching for a way out, or some might say a way in, and then I heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio. He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.

Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.

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You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, though decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.

 David Richardson holds a sign that reads I Am Man while visiting the John Lewis memorial under the John Lewis mural on Auburn Ave, Sunday, July 19, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
David Richardson holds a sign that reads I Am Man while visiting the John Lewis memorial under the John Lewis mural on Auburn Ave, Sunday, July 19, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.

When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.

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