The people carrying on the legacy of John Lewis

Michael Collins, left, was the chief of staff to U.S. Rep. John Lewis. He's now serving as a special assistant to Vice President Kamala Harris. “I never imagined what the congressman’s passing would mean to me,” Collins said recently. “It came in waves of processing his passing. He was a boss. He was a father figure. He was a mentor. He was a confidant. And I lost all of that at once.” (Curtis Compton/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
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Michael Collins, left, was the chief of staff to U.S. Rep. John Lewis. He's now serving as a special assistant to Vice President Kamala Harris. “I never imagined what the congressman’s passing would mean to me,” Collins said recently. “It came in waves of processing his passing. He was a boss. He was a father figure. He was a mentor. He was a confidant. And I lost all of that at once.” (Curtis Compton/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

During his 33 years in Washington, U.S. Rep. John Lewis earned the title of “the conscience of Congress.”

The Democratic lawmaker and civil rights leader always prided himself on being a man of the people: one who spoke for, took a beating for, and stood ground for those without power.

Whether his fellow lawmakers agreed with him or not, many respected him and his storied past.

When Lewis succumbed to cancer a year ago Saturday at the age of 80, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell described him as “someone who made huge personal sacrifices to help our nation move past the sin of racism and align more with the principles of our founding.”

“Good trouble” was Lewis’ signature phrase, and, since his death, it has become shorthand for his approach that included nonviolent protest, activism and left-leaning politics.

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Many former aides, colleagues, politicians and family members say they intend to carry on that mindset. And they say the work they are doing today is a direct reflection of lessons Lewis taught them.

As a student, he led sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee. Some who admire his example are launching new endeavors to teach future generations how to work to change situations they believe are unjust.

As a young man, Lewis was bloodied on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, while marching for voting rights in 1965. Some of his proteges today are working to advance federal voting legislation and to increase turnout on election day.

ExploreMore on the legacy of John Lewis

As an elected official, Lewis advocated for gun control and gay rights and led nonviolent protests even on the floor of the U.S. House. Many who agree with his vision of what America could be are working to shape the “beloved community” he always spoke of.

Here are a few:

Michael Collins: Aide transitioning from grief to service

In video footage, he’s the younger man who often walked a half-step behind the civil rights icon. Michael Collins was Lewis’ schedule keeper, body man, tie-fixer, bag holder and often the target of his good-natured jokes.

Last year, a documentary about Lewis premiered a couple of weeks before he died. But Collins still can’t bring himself to watch it.

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“I never imagined what the congressman’s passing would mean to me,” Collins said recently. “It came in waves of processing his passing. He was a boss. He was a father figure. He was a mentor. He was a confidant. And I lost all of that at once.”

Three months ago, Collins started a new chapter as a special assistant to Vice President Kamala Harris. He took the job, in part, because he believes Lewis would have wanted him to say yes to helping advance the agenda of America’s first Black vice president.

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The job has turned out to be even more of a reflection of his work under Lewis than Collins could have predicted.

President Joe Biden tasked Harris with helping lead Democrats in passing new federal voting laws. It will not be easy: Republicans say news laws are unnecessary and have used the filibuster to block debate. One bill would require a federal review of changes to election laws in states such as Georgia. That initiative is named after Lewis. A separate, wide-ranging election package includes voting access provisions that Lewis championed during his 33 years in Congress.

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff's first political job was as an intern for U.S. Rep. John Lewis. “I never would have run for office had he not encouraged me,” Ossoff said.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff's first political job was as an intern for U.S. Rep. John Lewis. “I never would have run for office had he not encouraged me,” Ossoff said. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

U.S. Sen Jon Ossoff: Mentored by Lewis

John Lewis endorsed Jon Ossoff in his U.S. Senate race. He attended Ossoff’s first campaign event: a voter registration rally in Atlanta.

But Lewis died before he was able to see Ossoff and another Georgian that he endorsed, Raphael Warnock, pull out a double-win in the January runoff that gave Democrats control of the Senate.

ExploreJohn Lewis left footprints across metro Atlanta

“I never would have run for office had he not encouraged me,” said Ossoff, whose first job in politics was interning for Lewis.

Ossoff recently selected a picture of Lewis that will hang on a wall near his desk in his Washington office.

“Put right above where I sit in my office — his portrait — so that he looks down on me and has a personal presence in my private space where I contemplate weighty decisions,” the senator said.

John-Miles Lewis, the son of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, is pursuing his own course in improving the world. “I don’t want my dad’s position. It’s a hell of a role to fulfill, and the background of the role I can never fulfill,” he said. “I have to make my own path.” Alyssa Pointer / alyssa.pointer@ajc.com
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John-Miles Lewis, the son of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, is pursuing his own course in improving the world. “I don’t want my dad’s position. It’s a hell of a role to fulfill, and the background of the role I can never fulfill,” he said. “I have to make my own path.” Alyssa Pointer / alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

John-Miles Lewis: Only son forges his own path

John-Miles Lewis wakes up every day surrounded by mementos and artifacts from his father’s decades spent fighting for civil rights and later as an elected official.

But, to a son, these are not political symbols. These are reminders that the man admired by much of the world was simply “Pops” to him.

John-Miles Lewis has been entrusted with the estate of his father and mother, Lillian, who died in 2012. He and other family members are still figuring out what to do with the papers, memorabilia and mementos that the couple left behind.

ExploreJohn Lewis: Man of the people

Lewis said he is finding his way as the only son of a beloved civil rights hero. But, as a 45-year-old man, he also has his own ideas of how to make the world better. Maybe it’s a youth ranch. Or maybe it’s job and life-skills training for young adults.

Whatever it is, it will honor his parents.

“I don’t want my dad’s position. It’s a hell of a role to fulfill, and the background of the role I can never fulfill,” he said in a rare media interview. “I have to make my own path.”

U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, shown with his arm locked with that of U.S. Rep. John Lewis on the 40th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march, got to know Lewis well during the 34 years Lewis served in Congress. “When he called you brother, you had the sense that he meant it,” Hoyer said. “It wasn’t just rhetoric. It was a relationship he believed he had with others.” (AP Photo/Kevin Glackmeyer)
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U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, shown with his arm locked with that of U.S. Rep. John Lewis on the 40th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march, got to know Lewis well during the 34 years Lewis served in Congress. “When he called you brother, you had the sense that he meant it,” Hoyer said. “It wasn’t just rhetoric. It was a relationship he believed he had with others.” (AP Photo/Kevin Glackmeyer)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer: A brother in politics

Steny Hoyer knows that John Lewis called lots of people “brother” or “sister,” but he also believes it wasn’t an empty title. The two served together in the U.S. House for nearly 34 years, Lewis’ entire tenure.

“When he called you brother, you had the sense that he meant it,” said Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat. “It wasn’t just rhetoric. It was a relationship he believed he had with others.”

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After Lewis died, Hoyer had a placard created with one of Lewis’ “good trouble” quotes. He posted it outside his office door at the U.S. Capitol. When it was destroyed during the Jan. 6 insurrection, Hoyer had a duplicate made and put it right back in the same spot.

Lewis had a vision for a more unified and inclusive America that he shared with like-minded colleagues in the House. It was a vision of economic access and voting rights, but also tolerance and acceptance. Hoyer believes that Lewis was “Christ-like” in his approach to both friends and strangers.

“John was a quiet, powerful presence,” he said. “That power of his persona and his example, I think, motivates a lot of the members who served with him.”

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr rarely agreed with U.S. Rep. John Lewis on policy, but he still saw the civil rights icon as an inspiration. “Taking the lessons that he taught both in his career and the impact that he had in the American civil rights movement as a Georgian,” Carr said. “I believe in the dignity and the value and the work of every human being.” STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
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Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr rarely agreed with U.S. Rep. John Lewis on policy, but he still saw the civil rights icon as an inspiration. “Taking the lessons that he taught both in his career and the impact that he had in the American civil rights movement as a Georgian,” Carr said. “I believe in the dignity and the value and the work of every human being.” STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr: The spirit of bipartisanship

Earlier in his career, when he was a top aide to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Chris Carr witnessed the profound moment when the Montgomery, Alabama, police chief apologized to U.S. Rep. John Lewis for his department’s failure to protect him and other Freedom Riders back in 1961.

“We were not there by design,” Carr remembers Chief Kevin Murphy telling Lewis. “And as a result, you and the other riders were beaten, and that just isn’t right.”

Murphy took off his badge and handed it to Lewis. Later in the trip, Carr and Isakson marched with Lewis across the bridge in Selma to reenact the voting rights march of 1965 that resulted in the “Bloody Sunday” massacre.

Carr and the congressman rarely agreed on policy. For example, Lewis wanted to make it easier to vote and supported federal laws that expanded access. Carr supports Georgia’s new election law, which Democrats say makes it harder for Black people to vote.

Carr admires Lewis’ leadership and sacrifice during the civil rights movement. He connects his own work on the Georgia Police Community Trust Initiative, a racial reconciliation program involving nine police departments, to that legacy.

“Taking the lessons that he taught both in his career and the impact that he had in the American civil rights movement as a Georgian,” he said. “I believe in the dignity and the value and the worth of every human being.”

Rep. John Lewis stands with co-author Andrew Aydin, right, and illustrator Nate Powell on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Aydin persuaded the civil rights pioneer to write a comic book about his experiences. It turned into a trilogy, with the final installment, "Run," coming out after Lewis' death.
Caption
Rep. John Lewis stands with co-author Andrew Aydin, right, and illustrator Nate Powell on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Aydin persuaded the civil rights pioneer to write a comic book about his experiences. It turned into a trilogy, with the final installment, "Run," coming out after Lewis' death.

Andrew Aydin: Protecting the Lewis legacy

“March,” the three-part comic book series featuring Lewis, became such a hit that the congressman had a promotional tour with co-author Andrew Aydin, also his social media director.

Lewis helped write the latest graphic novel, “Run,” before he died. Now, Aydin is preparing for a publicity tour that he will have to do solo. The new work focuses on what Lewis experienced in the year after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 1965, which infuriated those who wanted to keep Jim Crow as the status quo.

Two days after President Lyndon Johnson handed Lewis one of the pens he had used to sign the new law, the future Georgia congressman was arrested for participating in a protest in Americus.

“That part is die-hardness,” Aydin said. “The fact he is so militant and so committed. He really truly never stopped.”

Aydin now believes that part of his task is to help protect Lewis’ legacy. He wants to promote the books that he says will help ensure that what Lewis stood for isn’t watered down. He also says the work is just as relevant today, with states such as Georgia passing laws that many believe make it tougher to vote and the Supreme Court passing down decisions that Democrats argue weaken the Voting Rights Act.

There’s a lesson, he said. Lewis isn’t some made-up superhero; he was a real-life one who grew up in rural Alabama and, along with mentors such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., helped change this country.

“He’s the boy from the farm who meets the wizard who teaches him about his secret powers and then goes to fight the evil empire,” Aydin said.

Stacey Abrams, shown campaigning for governor in 2018 with U.S. Rep. John Lewis standing behind her, said he taught her to focus — not just on winning but on doing good. “What was so telling about John Lewis is that he never apologized for his partisanship, but he also never allowed it to sublimate his sense of citizenship,” she said. “And that is what I hope I continue to reflect.” (TIA MITCHELL/TIA.MITCHELL@AJC.COM)
Caption
Stacey Abrams, shown campaigning for governor in 2018 with U.S. Rep. John Lewis standing behind her, said he taught her to focus — not just on winning but on doing good. “What was so telling about John Lewis is that he never apologized for his partisanship, but he also never allowed it to sublimate his sense of citizenship,” she said. “And that is what I hope I continue to reflect.” (TIA MITCHELL/TIA.MITCHELL@AJC.COM)

Stacey Abrams: Continuing the fight for voting rights

Back when Stacey Abrams was running for governor of Georgia, John Lewis would sometimes join her on the campaign trail.

He stood with her in the rain in Macon. He danced along to his favorite song, “Happy,” to entertain the crowd in Decatur as they waited for her chat with Oprah Winfrey.

But one stop that has stuck with Abrams is the time they swung by the Kroger on Moreland Avenue in Atlanta. Lewis walked up to a woman to ask her to vote for Abrams but noticed she was having trouble managing her shopping list and two children.

“He started pushing her cart down the aisle,” Abrams recalled. “He was having the best time. And it was so effortless, It was absolutely instinctive, and it was genuine. For him, the notion of service was not simply an idea about being in office. It was presenting yourself as one who could help a fellow human in need. And, in that moment, she needed someone to push her cart, so that’s what he did.”

Abrams won’t talk about her political future and her likely rematch with Gov. Brian Kemp in 2022. But she has launched new organizations that focus on voting rights and redistricting.

She said Lewis taught her to focus — not just on winning but on doing good.

“What was so telling about John Lewis is that he never apologized for his partisanship, but he also never allowed it to sublimate his sense of citizenship,” she said. “And that is what I hope I continue to reflect.”

More reflections on Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights icon

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi

“Today, 56 years after John was nearly killed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Bull Connor and his billy clubs are gone. But the assault on basic democratic freedoms continues, evolved into a sinister new form of voter suppression, partisan gerrymandering and big dark special-interest money in politics. Now, today, the Congress and Country must carry on John’s mission to protect democracy, which is why Democrats are committed to H.R. 1/S. 1, the For The People Act, which would stop the assault on democracy and restore the vision of our Founders: a government of, by and for the people.”

Martin Luther King III, who recently launched the #ForJohn initiative backing federal voting laws

“Our democracy is under attack. Our elected officials need to recognize the urgent moment we’re in and act now to protect voting rights and ensure American democracy is upheld. #ForJohn will support the legacy of our family friend John Lewis and maintain pressure on Congress to pass reforms.”

U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, who holds Lewis’ former seat in Congress

“He would always challenge us to be our best selves and challenge us to speak up when it wasn’t always easy or comfortable to speak up.”

Brenda Jones, former spokeswoman who is launching the John Lewis Institute for Peace

“Now it’s important to keep his legacy and commitment to peace as a goal in our society. I think we all feel dwarfed by his example. But his passing, I think, is telling all of us we’ve got to step up to the plate.”

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, who also served as Lewis’ pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church

“It takes courage to keep walking when you can’t see exactly what’s on the other side. And in this moment in our country, in which there is a death’s fog of bigotry and xenophobia and the politics of fear settling over that bridge of the American experience, there’s the temptation to stop walking because you can’t see the details and what it will cost to get to where we need to go. But I think we have to keep walking.”

Former U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson

“I’ve often said that John represented how things can change when people take the right actions and are willing to do the things that let them change. I will never forget how humbled I felt crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge with him in 2013 during the three-day civil rights pilgrimage he led. His work as a civil rights leader was a lifelong calling, despite the brutal circumstances he faced and the ‘good trouble’ he caused to make America better.”