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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
Remembering an Icon, Congressman John Lewis. Aired 1-1:30p ET
Aired July 30, 2020 - 13:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
FORMER MAYOR BILL CAMPBELL (D-GA), ATLANTA: To John Miles and Obama, Speaker Pelosi, Madam Mayor. Romans 8:18 tells us, for I consider the sufferings of the present time to not be worthy of the glory which shall be revealed to us.
When I met John Lewis over 40 years ago, our lives intersected because in 1960, he came to my hometown Raleigh, North Carolina, to form SNCC a small black college, Shaw University, where my father who was president of the NAACP led nightly civil rights demonstrations.
Again, in 1963, our lives intersected because my father returned from the march on Washington and he began raving about a speaker, young John Lewis who had electrified the crowd.
And so imagine when I finally met him in Atlanta in 1976 as a young law student, it was a transcendent moment like meeting a historical figure, Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, who wrote the declaration of independence, but yet here was someone who had made America live up to those noble words. Along with Dr. King and Reverend Abernathy and Andy Young and Joseph Lowery and C.T. Vivian, another lion who we lost on the same day as John Lewis.
John had an incorruptible integrity and an ideological purity which was like a halo. Somehow, this extended to everyone who was in his orbit, myself included. And that's the reason the nation has paused from pandemic and protests and politics to bid him farewell today.
Virtually, every news organization has hailed John as a civil rights hero. But John was a women's rights hero, a gay rights hero. a senior rights hero, a worker's hero, an immigrants' rights hero. John wasn't on the right side of history. History was on the right side of John Lewis.
And in his spare time, he introduced the legislation to create the African American history museum and he fought the bigots in Congress for 15 years until he triumphed yet again against insurmountable odds. One of his proudest moments was standing at a dedication of that monumental structure four years ago.
And for those who wondered if perhaps his time had passed, with his body ravaged with cancer, so frail and fragile that he yielded to a cane and what he surely knew would be his last public appearance, he summoned the strength to walk to the middle of Black Lives Plaza in Washington, D.C. to express his solidarity and support for the young protesters who have begun to change America as John Lewis did as a young man.
They say that the victors write history, and so I declare today that the history of the 20th century, as it is written, John Lewis will stand beside Gandhi and King and Mandela as one of the great transformative freedom fighters of humankind.
And while the nation mourns a great leader, I will miss a dear, loving and loyal friend who allowed me the extraordinary privilege to walk along beside a living saint, St. Lewis.
In the last days of his life, when we both knew that death was imminent, I desperately wanted to tell John about how much he had meant to me and to the country. But in a solemn moment, he pulled me closely and he whispered, everyone has to vote in November. It is the most important election ever.
And I promised him that with every fiber in my body, I would tell everyone, if you truly want to honor this humble hero, make sure that you vote.
1 Corinthians tells us, when faith, hope and love remain, the greatest of these is love. John Lewis was love. Good night, sweet prince, and may flights of angels carry thee to thy rest.
JAMILA THOMPSON, DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF TO JOHN LEWIS: Good afternoon. I have on two masks because I have Mr. Lewis's voice in my head and he would say, be particular.
My name is Jamila Thompson. And on the behalf of the staff, I would like to thank John Miles and the entire Lewis family for the honor and the privilege of sharing the congressman and Mrs. Lewis who was his partner in life and in public service with generations of the staff for the last 33 years and the celebration of his life and his legacy.
The congressman would want me to tell you as I look at you today and you're his favorite color that you look good, you look fresh, you look clean, you look beautiful. Thank you. We are honored to serve you and we were honored to serve him.
We would also like to express our sincere and great appreciation to the speaker of the House of Representatives, the majority leader, the majority whip, the clerk of the House of Representatives, the office of employee assistance, the congressional black caucus, and all of your amazing staff for your patience and your guidance during this very difficult time.
People always ask us what was it like to work for Congressman Lewis. What was he like up close? What was he like in real life? And it is too difficult to explain so our answer was always the same, so my answer was always the same. He's just as you may imagine but better, and that no day was ever the same. What you know about the congressman is true. He was a gentleman. He was truly of the people and a peaceful soul. When he came into the office every single day, he would greet every staffer, every fellow, every intern with a good morning, sir, a good morning, ma'am. He would end every request, every successful speech, every successful bill, every hearing, every mark-up with thank you, thank you, young brother, thank you, sister, thank you, my child or my dear.
As staff, we felt it was our duty to create and maintain a space where the congressman could be completely and wholly himself. In college, we often say that there's the freshman 15 that you gain a little bit around. In our office, there was the John Lewis 20, because he and Michael would bring in lunch and far, far too often desert because some cake or some pie or some brownie would be calling out to them in the grocery store and they would want everyone to come together and sit down and share a meal.
We were a little family, a little enclave, a lot of drama, a lot of fun and so much love. He broke down those work barriers and he welcomed our parents, our spouses, our children, our grandchildren, our nieces and nephews, our godchildren and friends into the circle, making them fall equally in awe of his greatness.
Sometimes the world got a little glimpse of our nest during these impromptu gatherings and certain videos may go viral while we were like a well-oiled machine when it came to policy and casework.
Although we were like that in public, he enjoyed stirring things up in the office. You might call him a little bit of an instigator. He would get us in trouble with Michael, try to corner us with questions and stir things up. And with time, you knew not to take the bait. And you would learn to say, oh, no, congressman, you're not going to get me today. And he would laugh.
I think that that's what I'm going to miss the most. I'm going to miss his laugh and not the one you see on television, you know, but the one where he would be sitting back and shooting the wind and he would throw back his head and he would just laugh from his heart, from his belly, from his soul.
So many workers are often taught to be invisible. But with Mr. Lewis he always saw you and made you feel special and worthy. Dr. King and Rosa Parks spent time with him as a teenager and it changed the course of his life. So I believe that he spent every waking moment paying it forward. He could be absolutely exhausted but still take one more picture, spend one more moment, especially with young people. This meant that we were always, always, always behind schedule.
So the very first lesson in staffing the congressman was to learn to operate on John Lewis time, which translates into late but trusting that it would always work out. As he told everyone, he could out walk the entire staff. And so our duty was to keep up. When it was time to move, we did. But when it was time to be present and the congressman needed a little bit of quiet, we would try to create that space. He would slow down to appreciate and absorb the majesty of the moment for his own mental archives.
Just as we tried to preserve the sanctity of his space, he allowed us to be our true and authentic selves, just the very best version. He found staff who were unique, and I think represented either a little bit of his personality or what he needed to compliment it. We made our ways to Mr. Lewis through very random paths, coincidences, some strategies of others and for believers through divine intervention.
He didn't hire based on a resume, but your energy, your being, your essence, your passion and your potential. We were a medley group of musicians, air traffic controllers, photographers, dancers, social workers, entertainers, artists, historians, and every once in a while, an actual lawyer or a political scientist.
He got all into our business and was there in spirit or in person for the big moments. In the same way that he always took a call from Mrs. Lewis or John Miles, he let us drop everything in a family emergency. And generations of children have fond memories of hanging out in his office as their parents worked nearby. He let us be ourselves, especially when it came to civic participation. He let us organize, protest, testify and always, always, always vote. We tried to absorb his energy and his lessons.
To my knowledge, three staff served him for over 20 years, Ruth Berg, Tamari Butler and first cousin, Michael Collins. May you play stand.
And there's a whole generation of staff who are right behind them, at 19, at 15, at 17, at 12, at 10 years, at 14 years, Ruth Riley, Brenda Jones, Jared McKinley, Michelle O'Neill.
And then there are the staffers who could never really leave, like Linda Chastain and Jacob Gillison, whom he kept pulling back in as friends and confidants.
Although some of you and some people moved on, you couldn't really because his spirit was in you forever. His voice is always in our head. Be kind. Be mindful. Be particular. Make it plain. Make it simple. Make it sing.
Working for him was a little bit of a nightmare sometimes. Because as no matter how hard we worked, he always worked harder. Every single day, he woke up at the crack of dawn, watched the news and read the newspapers.
His memory was like a living encyclopedia, which means he forgot nothing and could pull something back from ten years ago because he knew it was the same staff and we were still there. He expected us to be informed with facts from primary sources, not hearsay. And when he walked into the office, he would ask what constituents were calling and writing about and add that information to his endless archives.
You learn the hard way or the subtle way because he was not direct. But when he asked you a question, he usually knew the answer but wanted to see whether or not you could represent him and his constituents. When preparing for a big vote or a big speech, he would drop a subtle hint. Have you read this poem, this speech, a book, some scripture? Do you remember this painting?
And then he would say, let's come back and talk about it later on. This little hint would prepare you for the aftermath of those executive sessions that he had with himself. And after those sessions, we would learn how and in which direction the spirit moved him. And then we would have our marching orders.
He would take the essence of a complicated policy and make it accessible and real to the people. The congressman loved serving on the Ways and Means Committee. He always showed up. And he hated to miss votes on the floor. Let me say that again. He could not stand to miss votes. The voice messages I have from him about the votes that he was about to miss are still on my phone to this day.
This is the reason why we are so thankful that Congressman Kildee and his staff are willing to serve and to help us cast his ballots during this pandemic and to serve as his proxy.
The congressman would walk the halls or sit in committee or sit in the office and he loved the beauty of the House of Representatives. He loved its closeness to the people and the complicated reflection of the status of our nation. Every visitor to our office received a full dose of southern hospitality, the offer of a Georgia coke, some peanuts, a brief tour of the office and sometime on our beloved balcony with its stunning view of the U.S. Capitol.
While he loved his country and all its people, the record should be clear on his immense pride and representing Georgia's 5th congressional district. He was so proud to represent metro Atlanta and all of its cities, all of its counties and all of its people.
He was on a mission to serve, to make them feel heard, respected and represented regardless of where they fell on the political spectrum. The constituents were our compass and Congressman Lewis worked around the clock to find solutions to their challenges.
When it came to public service and public policy, his name did not need to be on the headlines or on the frontlines.
It was the action and the results that mattered. Not every problem needs a bill. And he could always find compromise without compromising his values or his principles when the challenge presented itself.
He played the long game and he knew every trick in the book. And he expected the staff to fight in a non-violent manner for the people. When constituents were concerned about the rights of soviet jury, he took action. When faced with inequality in health services, he advanced changes to increase services to life saving care, especially for the issues that affected communities of color, like kidney disease and COPD.
When workers faced pensions issues, he found ways to give them security. When families were separated by immigration policies, he worked around the clock to reunite them. When people couldn't get their social security checks, he fought and sometimes for years to make that happen.
When taxpayers and workers struggled with an outdated bureaucracy of the IRS, he worked to modernize the entire agency. When he heard from frustrated veterans, he fought for their earned benefits and their care. When he saw an increase in abusive relationships, he developed strategies to stop the cycle before it began.
When some tried to eliminate the U.S. Institute of Peace, he found a way and built a coalition to keep that building and the prospect and the hope of peace still alive. When he was worried about the state of our globe for generations yet unborn, he introduced the Environmental Justice Act. When looking at the rights of marginalized communities around the world, he worked to diversify the face of our diplomacy and insert empathy and standards to our global policies. And when people complained about immovable lines to vote he, co-wrote the Voter Empowerment Act.
The list is too long to recognize his legislative and policies successes and the impact that he has on people across the nation and around the world. So I ask you as we sit in this historic space and as you drive through metro Atlanta and you feel and you see the greatness of his legacy, historic preservation and civic education, I ask that you hold that in your heart and your soul and your spirit. He felt that we needed to know and study our history to make sure that we never repeated it.
He was both human and divine. It is so difficult to explain the magnitude, the genius, the gentle grace of this man.
I would ask at this moment for the staff to take a stand, please, so that you can see and know just a sample of who we are, the former staff. Thank you.
A few years ago, we had a reunion and we realized that there aren't that many staff. We have a lot of interns and a lot of fellows but the congressman held us close. I don't think that there are many offices where you have the opportunity to hold your boss's hand until just as time to tell every person that you love them. He created the space. He created this family.
As a staff, we are heartbroken. We are lost. But we know that the work continues. The fight remains. And we cannot, we must not get lost in the sea of despair. So, if asked how you may honor the congressman, I will echo the words of the great sister before. You can make sure that his work, his sacrifices, message lives on and that there are actions that every person can do regardless of their age or their station in life. Be kind. Be mindful. Recognize the dignity and the worth of every human being.
Be the best version of yourself. Be informed. Stay engaged even though the work is hard. And if you are of age, and eligible for the love of God, please vote. Thank you.
SHEILA O'BRIEN, NIECE OF JOHN LEWIS: Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Sheila O'Brien and I am the sixth niece of Congressman John Lewis.
To each distinguished guest, member of clergy, family and friends, on behalf of the Lewis family, we would like to say thank you from the very depths of our hearts for the outpour of love, support, words of encouragement and prayer. The honor, the respect, the camaraderie that has been bestowed upon the Lewis family will never be forgotten.
We would also like to take this opportunity to give a heartfelt thanks to the chief of staff, Michael Collins, who has now become first cousin and to each staff member -- and to each staff member that has worked tirelessly with and for Congressman Lewis, especially during this time.
Words are not enough to express how grateful we are for all that you have done, especially for our cousin, John Miles. I'm here to pay tribute to a man that was larger than life. To the world he is known as the honorable congressman John Lewis. But to his siblings, he's affectionately known as Robert. And to his many nieces and nephews, he is known as Uncle Robert. So if you would permit me to just call him Uncle Robert right now, I'd be grateful.
Uncle Robert loved his family. And we, as you can tell, loved him. He was a son to our grandparents, Eddie Lewis, who we called Grand Daddy Buddy, and Willie Mae Lewis, who we called Ma. He was the husband to one wife, our Aunt Lillian, the father to one son, our cousin, John Miles, and a brother to a lot of siblings, too many to name right now. We don't have time.
While we knew how important he and his work was to the world, when we were with him, we saw Uncle Robert, we saw the man that enjoyed spending time with his family, reminiscing about days gone by, catching up on family dynamics, enjoying a good meal, sharing laughter and love.
We, like the world, knew that John Robert Lewis that personified hope, courage, bravery and sheer humanitarianism. As we all know before he was chosen to Congress, yes, I say, chosen, because the word of God tells me that many are called but few are chosen.
His first call was to that of a civil rights movement. For the last 60 years as a non-violent civil rights activist, he was the voice for those that couldn't speak, the feet for those that couldn't walk and the champion of injustice for those that couldn't fight. He along with many others civil rights icons became the change agents that the world so desperately needed.
As a member of Congress, he was known as the conscience of Congress. For over 30 years he stood with the 5th congressional district of Georgia. He has been recognized, revered and held to the highest esteem for the work he's done to build a better community. He broke barriers. He tore down walls. He defied stereotypes and refused to be moved from his stance on injustice, liberty and freedom. He made time for everyone and was always picture ready. He did not miss an opportunity for a photo-op or to just take a few moments to talk to his constituents or to those that revered him.
His love was contagious and it could be felt each time you were in his presence.