I think the first time that I met Congressman John Lewis was at the opening of the Eyewitness exhibit at the National Archives in June 2006. I had seen him walking the Halls of Congress, but his committee assignments never aligned with the Archives, and I had never been to his office. It was a true honor to walk him through our exhibit.
The Eyewitness exhibit had one section called Confrontations for Justice and featured a mural-sized print of Spider Martin’s famous photograph at the Edmund Pettis Bridge on March 7, 1965. Entitled “2 Minute Warning,” it records the moment that the marchers and the Alabama State Police are facing off, seconds before the troopers charged. John is at the head of the column with Hosea Williams and the police are brandishing their night sticks.
As we turned the corner and came upon this almost life-sized photo, the Congressman stopped and stepped back. He had seen this iconic image hundreds of times in the 41 years since that day, but the size of this version stopped him in his tracks. After a moment of reflection he approached the photo and pointed to one state policeman. He turned to a colleague and me and said, “that’s the one who hit me”. (The man was never identified by name and in official testimony John said the gas mask the trooper wore made positive identification impossible).
Our paths crossed at other times, but my longest encounter was in 2010 at a fundraiser in Washington, DC for The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). I had retired from the National Archives and become the Hill advocate for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). My legal aid issue was in John’s lifelong wheelhouse.
The night was a tribute to longtime Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson (now Chair of the House January 6th Committee) and listening to the two men reminisce was a real treat. The venue was a townhouse on Massachusetts Ave and the event seemed sparsely attended to me. While a shame for the SPLC, it afforded me the opportunity for an extended one-on-one with Congressman Lewis.
We talked about the inequality of justice in America, the need for better funding, and his willingness to always be there for LSC. But the two things that stood out in that conversation were his interest in my family and his calm, restful demeanor.
To his questions I told him that my wife and I had two daughters, Megan, and Brittany. He slowly repeated their names and asked me about each of them. I said that Megan was a teacher in North Carolina and Brittany was in her first year at the Department of Justice. He conveyed true interest in them and their careers (I had talked to enough Congressmen to sense the difference) and reflected on the importance of both of their professions.
He was the definition of Zen and to be with him was therapeutic. This made his passionate voice for justice even more inspiring. It came like a hurricane on a calm day and demanded attention.
We live in his debt.