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.
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.