If the arrival of death can be judged by its timing, Friday’s passing of civil rights icon John Lewis would seem to have come at the worst time. Too many of us have stood by for too long and allowed political forces to aggravate racial tensions to levels not seen since the civil rights era more than a half-century ago. The unrest we witness in cities across our land in the wake of former Texan George Floyd’s death have brought the problem of race back before us, front and center, which is where it ought to be after so much neglect and lip service.
In this discouraging context, Congressman Lewis’ thoughts in Waco in 2007, when this devoted follower of Martin Luther King Jr. sat down for a Trib Q&A, is jarring. When asked how he viewed progress made since the civil rights era, Lewis glowed: “I am gratified. I am deeply renewed and reassured about the possibilities. To me, it’s amazing the progress we’ve made and the distance we’ve come. We still have progress to be made, but to people who say, ‘We can’t change,’ I say, ‘Come and walk in my shoes and I’ll show you we have changed.’”
Lewis even insisted the nation was ready for a black president, though he conjured up Dr. King’s foundational beliefs in qualities such as character and ability and integrity making the difference: “I think America is ready to elect a black person as president of the United States. We’re in the process of laying down the burden of race. I think that day will come very soon when people will vote and they will realize they’re not voting for a black man or a black woman or a black person. They will vote for the best candidate.”
During our present era of racial strife, when demagoguery readily spills from some political leadership, when elections are calculated on the basis of racial demographics, when incidents of police brutality confound and embarrass and anger, it’s easy to get discouraged. But as Baylor Law School professor Pat Wilson wisely reminded us while recalling Congressman Lewis’ 2007 visit to the school, maybe the civil rights leader’s famous optimism and confidence should still rule the day. Yes, the Voting Rights Act is weaker, but racial safeguards remain. Yes, the din of demagoguery has grown, but minorities in positions of governance and policy-making have increased. Yes, isolated instances of racial insensitivity surface in commerce but they’re frowned upon by Wall Street and we the patrons. Somewhere in all this, we’re closer to that principle in the Declaration of Independence about all of us being equal. We have a ways to go, but if we can show some of Lewis’ principled courage in the really bad times, maybe we can get there from here.