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Congressman John Lewis' Casket Arrives At The U.S. Capitol. Aired 1:30-2p ET
Aired July 27, 2020 - 13:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The fact that he was able to compromise with his elders, elder statesmen in the civil rights movement, to back off and take off a little bit of that speech so that he would, out of respect, out of deference to the Kennedy administration and to those civil rights leaders, bridge that gap.
And that, too, was a message that he was telling the young people of Black Lives Matter when he was there that weekend in that moment to go ahead and to extend that olive branch to the D.C. mayor, to recognize that progress comes in steps and increments, that the trouble is not all at once but over the span perhaps of months and a lifetime.
BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Suzanne, so well said. Thank you so much. If you could stand by for us.
We want to bring in Abby Phillip to build on some of Suzanne's comments there.
Abby, as she said, it comes in steps and it comes in increments. And I think seeing this procession today and seeing John Lewis being honored over the course of six days, it's also a reminder that, when John Lewis was a young man, there were questions about whether what he was doing was right. Was this the right way? Is this the way that America will become a better place for all Americans?
And the answers were certainly not as clear to many Americans, which brings us to the moment that we are in a racial reckoning going on across the United States. And there are similar questions and people not knowing if things are heading in the right direction or maybe they're uncomfortable or they are fearful.
And looking back on John Lewis' life is something that maybe can inform this moment for us about the path forward and how history may judge the moment we are in now.
ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I think that this is one of the parts about having this moment and having someone who spent so much of his life in the public sphere. You can see the beginning, the middle and the end of the story.
And at the beginning of this story, the civil rights activist, of which John Lewis was a part, was not popular in this country. It was not a popular movement. There were many people who believed that what they were doing was too provocative, perhaps unnecessary. It made a lot of people uncomfortable in this country at the time.
But we now have the benefit of all of these decades of having John Lewis as a presence in our life. And we can see that what he was doing was right.
But something you said earlier, Brianna, that really struck me, which was that John Lewis was able to see into the future. He was able to see then about the country that he wanted.
And even in this moment, he, right before he passed away, he was looking into the future for the country, as well. He was basically saying there's unfinished business. There are forces trying to, in his words, take us back to a dark time.
And he saw this new generation of activists as the people who would take on this torch and carry it into the future.
John Lewis could have left public life a long time ago and sat back and said my work here is done but he didn't. And he didn't because he always was looking forward and seeing the threat of taking steps backward from all the progress that he helped create for this country.
So this is someone who, I think, the lesson that we all learn from him is that he is never willing to let people just sit on their laurels and accept the situation as it is. He has always pushed the country forward from the beginning of his time in this movement as a young man in the early 20s, all the way until his death.
And the very last public gesture that he made, to be at Black Lives Matter Plaza, was part of that signaling that he was giving to this country in this pivotal time that the work is not done.
He really did believe that there was -- there's a threat that always remains that we could take steps backward and that you have to be vigilant not just on the issues of racial equality but on all issues of justice and fairness in this country.
He took a stand on the issue of immigration in the capitol, in his final years. As Suzanne pointed out, gun control was a major issue for him.
And voting. I think this year, of all years, voting is going to be such a crucial issue.
And you see his friends and his mentors and the people who are carrying his torch on Capitol Hill taking that on because they know how important that was to John Lewis and how John Lewis very much saw real problems on the horizon as he looked forward into a time that he wouldn't be with us in this moment.
But he was saying to us effectively this is the crux of our democracy. This is what we fought for.
And I think he wanted to remind people that the work on that issue is not done. And that there's a real threat that the country can take a step backward if they get too complacent, if they're sitting on their laurels.
And he was never one to allow people to do that, even in his later and final years.
KEILAR: Such a good point.
He loved this country so much, Abby. He loved it enough to change it. Right? And that was -- that is such a great contribution that he has made both as an activist and as a legislator.
And you are up looking right inside of the capitol rotunda. John Lewis' casket currently is on the right side of your screen just outside of the capitol on the east plaza there.
But he is going to be honored by his colleagues in the House of Representatives, invited members from the House and the Senate and family members, who you can see in this very unique situation which is not what it would normally be. But there they are socially distanced wearing mask as they await their colleague who they are about to honor.
And as we are waiting for this to proceed, I want to bring in Dana Bash who is up there on Capitol Hill, actually reporting live from the office building where John Lewis had his office.
Dana, especially as we look at the unrest or really the state of America right now if we could just talk a little bit about John Lewis as, yes, an activist, but also, as a legislator making that pivot. Abby was talking about this. Making that decision to continue on from being an activist and trying something incredibly different.
Those are two different skill sets. Just because you're someone effective at one doesn't mean you're effective at the other.
But tell us about his contributions as a legislator.
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT:: You are right. Very, very different skill sets but when you're John Lewis very transferable because it has to do with listening, organizing, talking to people who don't always agree with you, taking a lot of stuff from people, either in politics across the aisle or in his previous life, across an ideological spectrum.
But he did come here. I mentioned the work he did to get the African- American Museum from an idea to a real beautiful and important building and teaching tool for everybody in the world who can come under normal circumstances to see it.
But also, things that he did with regard to gun safety. He was a big advocate of the Brady Bill early on.
He is also somebody who before it was -- when it was very, very unpopular, in politics, even in Democratic politics, to be for gay rights, he was. And he would say that he didn't fight for equality just for African-Americans, and later for women, but for everybody.
And that included people who, from his perspective, should be allowed to love who they want to love. He went against his fellow Democrat in the White House at the time. Bill Clinton, who supported the -- signed the Defense of Marriage Act.
He opposed the 1994 crime bill, which, through the lens of today, he was asked -- most Democrats, including the guy that signed it, Bill Clinton, that was a huge mistake. So he was the conscience of Congress and worked on pieces of legislation.
People don't talk about the tax legislation, Medicare, Medicaid. He was a senior member of the tax writing Ways and Means Committee. Didn't get the headlines that other things did because he was John Lewis.
But those are some of the things that he was passionate about and used his platform on those committees, on those policy making committees to try to further the work that he did for people who were disenfranchised -- Brianna?
KEILAR: Thank you so much for taking us through that.
It makes me think, Dana, you said he went against fellow Democrats, a Democratic president. We were also reminded that he went against his parents, right, in his early days. They were incredibly concerned about his safety as he was an activist.
KEILAR: This is someone who, I mean, he had a personal compass he followed and even if his parents were worried that he was doing the wrong thing.
BASH: Yes. You and I are both mothers. We understand. His mother, in particular, quite worried about his safety, and rightly so. He almost died on more than one occasion fighting for what he believed was right.
They worried about losing the land that his grandfather bought as soon as they could. And he was a -- their families were sharecroppers in Alabama. They were worried about real things that they had a right to worry about. But they couldn't control the destiny that their son, John Robert Lewis, said he felt he had and followed.
Which is why he wrote to Martin Luther King Jr when he was just a teenager. And in response, he got that round-trip bus ticket to go see him. And, you know, the rest is literally history.
One thing that, as we're watching this -- he's at the capitol. He is going to come into the rotunda.
Brianna, I'll never forget being in the rotunda of the capitol on the other side of the capitol when John Lewis walked back in after witnessing Barack Obama sworn in as president of the United States and the pride that he had, almost disbelief.
And you would think maybe even more belief, if it were not John Lewis because he could, as you and others were saying, see into the future. He had such hope for a moment like that.
But I will never forget that. And certainly anybody around him will never forget just watching him, knowing that he made that happen.
And Barack Obama later told him and wrote him something that he saved saying -- signed the program from the inauguration telling him that it was because of him that Obama became the first president of the United States.
Never mind all of the steps in between that Lewis pushed so hard for just for the basic right to vote.
KEILAR: He would later walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with the Obamas, one on either side of him.
I want to bring in Bakari Sellers to talk as we are awaiting John Lewis' casket which has arrived there at the capitol. It's in the Eastern Plaza. And it is going to be transported to the rotunda where so many of his colleagues will be there to honor him.
But, Bakari, you know, it's one of those things when you're talking about someone like John Lewis, he is larger than life. He is a transcendent individual. And yet, he's also the example of what a human being can aspire to when it comes to following their beliefs.
And I think we have talked a lot about it, but seeing a future that he wanted and marching toward it and knowing that he was going to move toward it, even if he wasn't going to maybe arrive at what he thought was the version of the country that he thought would best serve all Americans.
BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Your question is so on point. And the reason being is because one of the things that John Lewis has taught us is that heroes walk among us.
For black people, a lot of times, our history, the richness of the history is just dwindled down to Martin, Malcolm and Rosa, and they give you a white-washed legacy. People once portrayed Martin Luther King as a docile human being that didn't try to rise up with a radical tone in the way he carried himself.
But what John Lewis taught us is that true heroes were a part of the struggle every single day. It was Ella Baker, Diane Nash, all of these the heroes and sheroes that were with -- C.T. Vivian -- that were with John Lewis.
And he epitomizes that courage, that strength to understand that this country is better than it was and this country is better than it is. He is the true definition of a patriot.
There's a great deal of irony. And I'm just happy he gets a chance to rest there in the United States capitol. Because John Lewis, we want to talk about him in the United States Congress from 1986 forward, but from age 23, 24, 25, chairman of SNCC, they risked life and limb going down in Mississippi and Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, registering voters, local folk.
And none of those black folk elected today, the ones who will be able to celebrate with him, celebrate his life, none of them would be there it wasn't for the efforts of SNCC and people like John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, Ella Baker, my father.
And so be able to see him in the United States Congress in his final place of resting today before going to Atlanta, around his colleagues, you can only simply look at John Lewis saying, job well done.
There's work to be done, but on days like this, we like to have celebrations, especially in the black community. We call these home- goings celebrations. And we will not be overcome by sadness but we'll lift up John Lewis.
And I will just say that if I can be half of the person in and around politics that John Lewis was, if I can be half of the civil rights activist that John Lewis was, half the husband that he was, then my life will be a success.
KEILAR: It's -- even as you say that, you say it's home-going celebration, and I hear your voice tremble. Because someone like John Lewis does not leave without leaving a void, even as he leaves a legacy, an amazing legacy. I think of the ripple effect of his inspiration.
And I wonder, Bakari, I hear you reflecting on -- what will you do with that? How are you going to take that and continue on? How do you think people reflect on that question today?
SELLERS: My voice is trembling because of the sadness. It comes from understanding your mortality. Our heroes are dying. And that is the sadness.
There's an entire generation of individuals in this country who are 70, 75, 80 years old and they don't have to read about the history of our country in history books because they were actually there to smell gun smoke. They were hit across the head with Billy clubs. They understand what jailhouse floors feel like.
These are the people who allow for there to be a Don Lemon on primetime TV or Bakari Sellers or Angela Rye or Victor Blackwell or Abby Phillip. They crossed the hurdles. And now they're dying. So that's the sadness.
But it is also the challenge, as you say, because now we have to step up to the mantle. You know? We have to become a part of something larger than ourselves. We have to be willing to live every day in our truth.
One of the things that John Lewis was never afraid of walking on the pages of history. It is incumbent of everyone to join together in remembrance of people like John Lewis because, as much as we say, job well done, there's work to do.
And my job id, to be an amazing husband, to be an amazing father. My jobs is also to speak that truth to power every day I'm on TV, every day in my normal everyday life, push people to be better.
And I can honestly say all I want to do, Brianna, is have people like John Lewis look at me and say, job well done. I want him to be proud of me and the work I do. And that's the lessons I live with that weigh heavy on my heart today.
KEILAR: That is the standard that he leaves for you to aspire to and, for so many people, for all of us to aspire to, Bakari.
I want to bring in Nia-Malika Henderson to this conversation.
It is an emotional moment I think right now, Nia, because we are matching John Lewis and waiting. It is this peaceful moment outside of the capitol and, inside, his colleagues are waiting for him.
What was, you know, such a key part of his life, decades as a legislator, following the time as an activist. They're there, some of them are young, right? Some of them are folk who are just getting started in the legislative careers and some have been with him on this path in Congress for decades.
I'm sort of in awe of what must be the totality of what is on their minds right now as they're awaiting the arrival of his casket in the rotunda.
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes, they're awaiting the arrival of their friend, colleague, someone they stood shoulder to shoulder with in battles across the south, particularly someone like Jim Clyburn, who's in South Carolina doing similar work as John Lewis.
You know, I think when you're somebody my age, you know, I think about my parents, right, who were about the same age as John Lewis -- my mom is 82. My dad died years ago. But he was one of the foot soldiers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and he was part of the subsequent marches that were successful. So, I relate to Bakari.
And the pride, right? He had to invent himself, right? His parents were sharecroppers. They were warning people like John Lewis, a black man, to live out the full measure of his life. And that's exactly what he did.
And it was a dangerous thing to do, right? To really go against the white supremacist regime that existed in the south. As a boy, he heard about people who were lynched, right? And that is why his parents were so fearful of him getting into what he called good trouble because this good trouble could get somebody killed. And he saw that. Right? People like Medgar Evers as well. But he
persisted in that final public moment. Him standing in the blazes. He was standing there and along with them, the legacy of Martin Luther King, and Diane, all the folks who were with him in those years and really trying to forge a vision of the country that the founders never really wanted, right?
The founding in 1776, another founding with freedom of the slaves in 1865. And 100 years later, another set of founders, right? John Lewis and Martin Luther King, who pushed this nation to live out what the words of the Constitution say, that didn't really account for black and brown folk and women to be a part of this American experiment.
And John Lewis there, he comes to a capitol where he spent 30 years. And he comes to the Congress, where it is the most diverse Congress we'd ever seen in the history of this country. More women serving in Congress than ever served before. And that is the progress he wanted and that's the progress he continued to push for.
And we'll see more of that progress, right? Because of the work that John Lewis did and the work he's inspiring others to do. People like Bakari Sellers and people in Congress now, young folks, who are in those seats, in Congress, and inspired by John Lewis, who today, we'll bid farewell by his colleagues who loved him so much, who learned from him, and who wanted to join him in the work that was his life's business.
He really was a public servant, right? This humble man wanted to be preacher. He started out preaching to the chickens on his parent's farm. And 80 years later, we all joined the church of John Lewis, as he preached the gospel of equality and of humanity and racial and economic equity.
So, we're so grateful today that he got to live those 80 years. So many folks, their lives were cut short for any number of reasons, through violence, just through the stress of living as a black person in America.
So, we're grateful to his parents that they gave John Lewis to us and that he helped create this world we live in now.
KEILAR: And, Nia, I'm so grateful you shared that story about your late father crossing the bridge. The Pettus Bridge has become such a symbol and so inextricably linked to John Lewis.
But it's also a symbol of -- you saw the troubles he had trying to cross. And that's what we all remember.
I'm sorry, there was one of the servicemembers had -- this , of course, an incredibly hot day in Washington D.C. And one of the servicemembers appears to have fainted or -- we don't know if they lost consciousness but they've been tended to. So, that is what you have been seeing playing out on your screen there.
Nia, to the point of the bridge, he then came forward across the bridge with other people successfully, as you pointed out, and it would become a symbol. He would bring people along the bridge. I think it's such a symbol of how John Lewis really reached out to bring other people along. That is a key part of his legacy.
HENDERSON: That's exactly right. And when he would go down to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in subsequent years, bringing folks from across the aisle, bringing Republicans. That bridge, a symbol, not only bridging political divides but generational divides.
KEILAR: All right, let's listen in.
UNIDENTIFIED SERVICEMEMBER: Present arms.
Forward march. Sidestep.
Mark time. Halt.
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