Partisan politics aside, Lewis — like Sen. John McCain — is a true American hero. While McCain’s courage played out on the Communist soil of North Vietnam, Lewis suffered undeserving abuse in his own Southern homeland in a effort to simply secure the basic human rights already affirmed in the nation’s defining documents.
Demonstrating the kind of faith and hope that marked his generation of civil rights advocates, Lewis said Tuesday night that he genuinely believed America’s attitude toward race could change. Yet, it must have been overwhelming — and deservedly satisfying — for him to see the election of an African American to the nation’s highest office in his lifetime.
My mind went back to a time in the mid-’80s just before Lewis joined the U.S. Congress. We were having lunch together at the civil rights landmark, Pascal’s Restaurant and Motor Lodge in Atlanta.
Lewis had agreed to speak to a group of international students from various colleges and universities around the nation who were spending their Christmas break in Atlanta-area homes through the Friendship International House program. Students from around the world are drawn to Atlanta — which they quickly identify with Martin Luther King Jr. and Coca-Cola.
While the students picked with interest at the fried chicken, greens, cornbread and peach cobbler, Lewis casually talked to me with no idea that his words would become so embedded in my mind.
He talked of feeling an early call to ministry and practicing his preaching as a youngster before the chickens on his family’s Alabama farm. He told of attending the American Baptist College (Seminary) in Nashville that was then an educational partnership between the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Baptist Convention, USA, to train black ministers.
At one point he spoke of the significance of Pascal’s Restaurant — which he called “the unofficial communications center of the civil rights movement” and a rare place in the early ’60s for blacks and whites to gather in public.
“You could come in here and see Bobby Kennedy at a table in the corner talking with a civil rights leader,” he said.
Then glancing around the back room where our group had gathered, he added: “This room is the last place where I saw Martin alive.” Then he talked about the details of that and other nonviolent strategy meetings.
It has been a long journey for John Lewis and for this nation. With a most sincere look on his face late Tuesday night, Lewis seemed keenly aware that he had arrived at a destination a long way from the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
To believe that a nation can change its narrow ways of thinking requires the kind of great faith and great hope seen on the Baptist congressman’s face.