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Lessons that John Lewis taught me

Gevin Reynolds and U.S. Rep. John Lewis
Gevin Reynolds and U.S. Rep. John Lewis

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

On a routine Costco trip back in fifth grade, I met a giant in the next aisle over: U.S. Rep. John Lewis. My mom whispered his name in my ear and instructed me to go up to him, shake his hand, and thank him for what he’s done for me. I had no idea what he had done for me, but I did what I was told. It wasn’t until the drive back home that I came to understand why my mom had told me to thank him. That introduction was the start of a relationship that eventually led me to serve as an intern in Congressman Lewis’ office after my freshman year of college. From the day I met him, he taught me more lessons than I could ever capture in one essay, but here are four that have left the largest impact on me.

1. True courage is in action, not words.

Stepping into the office of Congressman John Lewis was like traveling back in time to March 7, 1965: Bloody Sunday. One photograph on the wall showed young John Lewis marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge wearing a trench coat and a backpack on his back, the look on his face that of a man who knew that he could be on a suicide mission but marched on anyway. Another photograph, taken moments later, showed John Lewis on the ground, one hand in the air to fend off the attack of an Alabama State Trooper, the other hand clutching the back of his concussed head. The attack left a scar that Congressman Lewis would describe as a reminder "that some of us gave a little blood on that bridge to redeem the soul of America, to make America better." Such courage challenges us to ask ourselves, "What am I willing to give to make America better?"

Congressman Lewis showed that same courage throughout his 33 years in Congress. I was interning for him when he, in response to the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting in Florida, led a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives to demand that the leadership allow gun control legislation to be introduced. He ended his speech that day with a clear call to action: “Now is the time to get in the way. The time to act is now.” Not the time to just talk, but the time to act - courageously, like Congressman Lewis.

2. We can and must forgive.

Congressman Lewis often told the story of a beating he endured at the hands of some young white thugs during a Freedom Ride on May 9, 1961. One of his attackers, a klansman named Elwin Wilson, came forward more than 40 years later and apologized to Congressman Lewis. Congressman Lewis explained the profound effect that Wilson’s apology had on him: “He was the first private citizen...to come and apologize to me ... . It was very meaningful.” When I first heard him tell this story, I felt challenged by his grace. If, after all that he had experienced in his life, Congressman Lewis could still forgive Elwin Wilson, then who among us has any excuses to not forgive those who have wronged us?

From this story, Congressman Lewis also instructs us to never give up on change. Hearts and minds can be the hardest things to change - especially for those who’ve been raised to hate - but as Congressman Lewis said in a statement after Wilson died, people can change when “they put down the mechanisms of division and separation to pick up the tools of reconciliation.” Let us continue to build with the tools of reconciliation that Congressman Lewis left behind in his toolkit for us.

3. A fighting spirit never dies.

In announcing his cancer diagnosis, Congressman Lewis said, “I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life. I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now.” Indeed, he fought his cancer with the same spirit with which he had fought injustice throughout his entire life. That spirit never dies because the fight for justice never ends.

To those who say that his death is the end of an era, I say instead that his death marks the evolution of an era that has no end. I can’t help but think that Congressman Lewis went to rest because he knew that his spirit would live on in those of us who are committed to continuing his fight.

4. Vote.

Period.

Gevin Reynolds is an alum of the Westminster Schools who interned in college for Congressman John Lewis, Goldman Sachs, and the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation. He graduated from Harvard University as a Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholar with a bachelor of arts degree in neurobiology. Reynolds now works in government affairs for the National Football League.

ExploreRemembering John Lewis: The life and legacy of the Georgia congressman and civil rights icon