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Remembering an Icon: Congressman John Lewis. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired July 30, 2020 - 12:00   ET



BILL CLINTON, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: To be president people were asking me, well if you could do one more thing what it would be? What you wish you had done that you didn't and then all that kind of stuff.

Someone asked me that night, because I had made friends in Atlanta and I said if I could just do one thing, if God came to me tonight and said, okay, your time's up. You got to go home. And I'm not a genie and I'm not giving you three wishes.

One thing, what would it be? I said, I would infect every American with whatever it was that John Lewis got as a 4-year-old kid and took through a lifetime to keep moving and keep moving in the right direction and keep bringing other people to move and to do it without hatred in his heart with a song to be able to sing and dance.

As John's brother Freddy said in Troy, keep moving to the ballot box even if it's a mailbox and keep moving to the beloved community. John Lewis wished many things but he was a man a friend and sunshine in storm a friend who would walk the stony roads that he asked you to walk. That would brave the chastening rods he asked you to be whipped by.

Always keeping his eyes on the prize always believing none of us will be free until all of us are equal. I just love that. I always will. And I'm so grateful that he stayed true to form. He's gone up yonder and left us with marching orders. I suggest since he's close enough to God to keep his eye on the sparrow and us we salute, suit up and march on.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): Good day. I'm not sure morning, afternoon, whatever it is. It is an honor to be here with each and every one of you. Reverend, thank you for enabling us all to be here in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, to honor and celebrate the life of John Lewis with three Presidents of the United States--


PELOSI: --isn't that exciting? President Clinton, President Bush and soon President Obama here with us on behalf of my colleagues as Speaker of the House, I'm pleased to bring greetings to each and every one of you. I'm sad to bring condolences to the family, to John, Miles, to the entire Lewis family. Thank you for sharing John Lewis with us.

I'm pleased to be here with so many members, 50. We would have had more except Coronavirus prevented the Church from allowing us to bring more but I hope they'll all stand, members of the House of Representatives.


PELOSI: Senators Harris and Booker who are with us, as well Senators Harris and Booker. Among them, Mr. Hoyer, Steny Hoyer, Jim Clyburn and I served with John Lewis for over 30 years. Over 30 years.


PELOSI: And in our group, we have senior members and we have members of our freshman class. John convinced each one of us that we were his best friend in Congress. And we come with a flag flown over the Capitol the night that John passed. When this flag flew there, it said good-bye, waved good-bye to John, our friend, our mentor, our colleague.


PELOSI: This beautiful man that we all had the privilege of serving with in the Congress of the United States. So again, we all bring our condolences to the family and to Michael Collins and John's staff who meant so very much to him. Thank you for your service to John Lewis.


PELOSI: There are many things we're grateful to the family for and to the staff for and we commend them for but let's acknowledge the stamina they have had to keep up with John even as he passed on from Troy to Selma to Montgomery to Washington and now to Atlanta to be at rest.

When John Lewis served with us, he wanted us to see the Civil Rights Movement and the rest through his eyes. He told us so many stories. He taught us so much. And he took us to Selma. For two decades, Mr. President, he took us to Selma.

You referenced 25 years some of us were there many times including 50th anniversary where President Bush was as well as President Obama. And he wanted us to see how important it was, how important it was to understand the spirit of nonviolence?

I hesitate to speak about nonviolence in the presence of the master himself Reverend Lawson who we will be hearing from shortly. We were together just recently in Selma when he and John spoke at Church and he taught the world really about nonviolence but I just want to say this.

The word "Satyagraha" is a word that in Sanskrit means two things. It means nonviolence and it means insistence on the truth. And that is what John Lewis was all about nonviolently insisting on the truth. He insisted on the truth in Nashville and Selma and Washington, D.C., at the Lincoln Memorial, he insisted the truth wherever he went.

And he insisted on the truth in the Congress of the United States. Every time he stood up to speak, we knew that he was going to take us to a higher place of our understanding and what our responsibilities were and what our opportunities were and he insisted no matter how shall we say offended someone might be that he would insist on the truth?

What he said, he said in my life, I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of peace and not violence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn, he says in this article that President referenced, to let freedom ring.

He always talked about truth marching on. He always worked for a more perfect union. Over the 4th of July weekend, I had the privilege of visiting with John and I brought him this flag pin that I wear, one just like it. Why I did so on that 4th of July weekend was because it is engraved with something that says one country one destiny.

Now, wasn't that what John Lewis was all about? One country, one destiny. I mention it because this was sown into, embroidered into the lining of Abraham Lincoln's coat that he had on the night he left us. I think he had the coat on all the time but also that night.

And John Lewis and Abraham Lincoln had so much in common. John began - we got to know him first and foremost in front of the Lincoln Memorial when he made that beautiful, beautiful speech.


PELOSI: John - lay in state in the rotunda under the dome of the Capitol on a Catapult, a platform that was made in 1865 to hold the casket of Abraham Lincoln.


PELOSI: Abraham Lincoln, John Lewis. John Lewis so they had lots of connections. By the way, just incidentally, they were both wonderful and spiritual and saintly but they were both very good politicians. Think of John Lewis that way. You will know him - know that.

He always was about a more perfect union. And he was always about young people. That's why, Mr. President, that article you referenced in "The New York Times" today, his message that would be delivered at this time as he left us was about young people.

He said to them, together you can redeem the world together always perfect union together, one nation, one destiny. And he says in the article, answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe in. Wasn't that just like John?

We were very proud to have his voice in the rotunda speaking about all that he cared about and believed in such a beautiful way, starting in Troy. I started my remarks by talking about the flag that waved over the Capitol to say good-bye to John as he began his passage.

But what I want you to know in addition to how revered he is in the Congress, so revered that you know he was a bit mischievous. You know? When he would say, let's make some good trouble, he always had sort of a twinkle in his eye and kind of a spark about it all.

And my colleagues can tell you that when he cooked up having the sit- in to get the Republican leadership to put the gun violence prevention bill on the floor, when he did that and all the members followed him, the floor covered with people, thought for a moment that perhaps the police might - because it was disruptive, good trouble.

It was clear to them that if they were to arrest John Lewis for doing that they were going to have to arrest the entire House Democratic Caucus.


PELOSI: So then he spoke. People listened. When he led, people followed. We loved him very much. As his official family, we mourn him greatly. He shared so much his love for his district, his family. The sadness when Lillian was sick, the joy he had in John Miles.

But as I said, we waved good-bye to this person, our leader, our friend, this shall we say humorous - he loved to dance. He loved to make us laugh sometimes while he was dancing. He said, my granddaughter Bella said to him, did you ever sing in the Civil Rights Movement?

He said they asked me to sing solo one time. So low so that nobody could hear me. But anyway, getting back to that flag waving good-bye to this person we just loved officially, personally, in every way, politically, too.

The last night he was at the Capitol it wasn't raining. Thousands of people are showing up to pay their respects. Little bit after 8:00 there was a double rainbow. But it hadn't rained. It was a double rainbow over the casket.

For us, it was we waved good-bye when he started to leave us. He was telling us, he was telling us, I'm home in heaven. I'm home in heaven with Lillian. We always knew he worked on the side of the angels. And now he is with them may he rest in peace. Thank you.



REV. JAMES LAWSON JR., ACTIVIST AND TEACHER IN NONVIOLENT ACTION: Pastor, our sisters and brothers, members of this Lewis family that so wonderfully nurtured John and love and hope and courage and faith and the rest of it and sisters and brothers.

Czeslaw Milosz, a polish catholic poet sets the tone at least in part for me as John Lewis has journeyed from the eternity of this extraordinary mysterious human race into the eternity that none of us know very much about.

When he wrote this poem called "Meaning." When I die, I will see the lining of the world. The other side beyond bird mountain sunset the true meaning ready to be decoded what never added up will now add up. What was incomprehensible will become comprehended.

And if there is no lining to the world, if a thrush on a branch is not a sign but just a thrush on a branch, if night and day make no sense following each other and on this earth there is nothing but the earth, even if that is so, there will remain a word. Wakened by the lips that perish a tireless messenger who runs and runs through interstellar places, through revolving galaxies and calls out and protests then screams.

And I submit that John in that other eternity will be heard by us again and again, running through the galaxies, still proclaiming that we the people of the USA can one day live up to the full meaning of we hold these truths. Live up to the full meaning we the people of the USA in order to perfect a more perfect union.

John Lewis practiced not the politics that we call bipartisan. John Lewis practiced the politics that we the people of the U.S. need more desperately than ever before the politics of the declaration of independence the politics of the preamble to the constitution of the United States.


LAWSON: I have read many of the so-called civil rights books over the last 50 or 60 years about the period between 1953 and 1973. Most of the books are wrong about John Lewis. Most of the books are wrong about how John got engaged in the national campaign of 1959, '60?

This is the 60th year of the sit-in campaign which swept into every State of the Union, largely manned by students because we recruited students. But put upon the map that the nonviolent struggle begun in Montgomery, Alabama, was not an accident.

But as Martin King Jr. called it, Christian love has power that we have never tapped and if we use it we can transform not only our own lives but we will transform the earth in which we live. I count it providential that as I moved to Nashville, Tennessee, dropping out of graduate school in Nashville came people like Kelly Miller Smith and Andrew White and Jeanette Hays and Helen Roberts and Delores Wilkinson and John Lewis.

And Diane Nash, C.T. Vivian, Marion Berry, Jim Bevel, Bernard LaFayette, Paulina Knight, Angeline Butler. How all of us gathered in 1958, 59 and 60 and 61 and 62 in the same city at the same time I count as being providential. We did not plan it.

We were all led there and when Kelly Miller Smith and the Nashville Christian leadership council met in the fall of 1958, and we determined that if there's to be a second major campaign that will demonstrate the efficacy of Satyagraha, of soul force, of love truth that we would have to do it in Nashville. And so, I planned as the strategist and organizer, a four-point Gandhian Strategic Program to create the campaign. We decided with great fear in anticipation we would desegregate downtown Nashville.

No group of black people or other people anywhere in the United States in the 20th century against the rapaciousness of a segregated system ever thought about desegregated downtown tearing down the signs renovating the waiting rooms taking the immoral signs off of drinking fountains.

But it was black women who made that decision for us in Nashville. I was scared to death when we made that decision. I knew nothing about how we were going to do this? I had never done it before. But we planned the strategy. John Lewis did not stumble in on that campaign.

Kelly Miller Smith, his teacher at ABC, invited John to join the workshops in the fall of 1959 as we prepared ourselves to face violence and to do direct action and to put on the map the issue that the racism and the segregation of the nation had to end.

And so, in the 60th anniversary of that sit-in campaign, which became the second major campaign of the Nonviolent Movement of America, those are not my words. John Lewis called what we did between 1953 and 1973 the Nonviolent Movement of America! Not the CRM.


LAWSON: I think we need to get the story straight because words are powerful. History must be written in such a fashion that it lifts up truly the spirit of the John Lewis's of the world.


LAWSON: And that's why I've chosen just to say a few words about it. Kelly Miller Smith invited John Lewis. I met a fifth student who told me about a student from Chicago who wanted to do something about those vicious signs. I said invite Diane Nash to the workshop in September because we're going to do something about those signs.

I pushed this hard. Now, John Lewis had no choice in the matter. You should understand that. Because all of the stories we have heard this morning of John becoming a preacher, preaching to the chickens and other sorts of things, becoming ordained as a Baptist Minister, something else was happening to John in those early years.

John saw the malignancy of racism in Troy, Alabama. There formed in him a sensibility that he had to do something about it. He did not know what that was. But he was convinced that he was called, indeed, to do whatever he could do, get in good trouble but stop the horror that so many folk lived through and in this country in that part of the 20th century.

John was not alone. Martin King had the same experience as a boy. I had the same experience from age 4 in the streets of Massillon, Ohio. Matthew McCollum, a pastor whose name you don't know in South Carolina had the same experience. C.T. Vivian had the same experience. I maintain that many of us had no choice to do but we tried to do primarily because at an early age we recognized the wrong under which we were forced to live and we swore to God that by God's grace we would do whatever God called us to do in order to put on the table of the nation's agenda this must end "Black Lives Matter".


LAWSON: And so between 1953 and 1973, we had major campaigns, year after year thousands of demonstrations across the nation that supported it. We had folk in the Congress, folk in the White House, folks scattered across the United States who were beginning to formulate what the solutions are for change?

The media makes a mistake when John is seen only in relationship to the voting rights bill of '65. However important that is, you must not remember that in the '60s Lyndon Johnson and the Congress of the United States passed the most advanced legislation on behalf of we the people of the United States that was ever passed.

Head start billions of dollars for housing. We would not be in the struggle we are today in housing if President Reagan hadn't cut that billions of dollars for housing where local Churches and where local nonprofits could build affordable housing in their own communities. Being sustained and financed by loans from the federal government.

We passed Medicare. We passed anti-poverty programs Civil rights bills '64, '65, voting rights bills. A whole array, John Lewis must be represent - must be understood as one of the leaders of the greatest advance of Congress in the White House.