Honoring Rep. John Lewis Who Built a Bridge to a Better America

By Sandra Long Weaver

NASHVILLE, TN — Over and over, those paying tribute to the late Congressional Rep. John Robert Lewis recalled him as a “living saint,” “a kind man”, a “remarkable man” and a “humble man.”

During the three-hour memorial service on July 16 at First Baptist Church Capitol Hill and also hosted by American Baptist College, over a dozen speakers including his youngest brother told stories of how Rep. Lewis impacted the country. 

The event attended by over 500 people, was the first of several during Rep. John Lewis Weekend in Nashville. July 16 was the one-year anniversary of his passing and the celebrations were designed to commemorate Lewis’ involvement in the civil rights movement as a college student at American Baptist College and Fisk University.

 He was instrumental in helping to organize the sit-ins in the early 1960s that integrated lunch counters on 5th Avenue which now has been re-named Rep. John Lewis Way. 

“He taught us to be humble, to take care of each other,” said Henry Grant Lewis, who was 12 years younger than his brother. “All of us had chores to do and he did his whether he wanted to or not. But you could always tell he felt he had

Teenagers and boys’ silent tribute to late Rep. John Lewis by wearing a trenchcoat and backpack at the start of the program. They also presented trenchcoats and backpacks to the president of American Baptist College, Dr. Forrest Harris, Sr., First Baptist Church Pastor Kelly Miller Smith,Jr. and Rep. Lewis’s younger brother, Henry Lewis.

something else he had to do.”

And thus began his career of standing up for what was right; for getting into “good trouble.” The younger Lewis said his brother got in touch with Dr. Martin Luther King and joined the movement. “He learned how to take a punch and not punch back,” Lewis said.

“The movement changed him in a good way. He always said, ‘I’ll be okay’,” Lewis said. He and his brother had a very tight bond, he said. “He had trust in the Lord and when he saw things were not right, he wanted to make life better.”

The program opened with 18 teenaged and young boys marching in with beige trench coats and back packs, a tribute to Lewis who also wore that same outfit to every protest in which he participated. Lewis was arrested 47 times. His backpack always had a piece of fruit, a toothbrush and toothpaste.

Guest speaker Rev. Michael Eric Dyson said Lewis was “a great and gifted servant. He told the truth season in, season out.”

Michael Eric Dyson, a globally renowned scholar of race, religion and contemporary culture, at Vanderbilt as Centennial Chair and University Distinguished Professor of African
American and Diaspora Studies in the College of Arts and Science and University Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Society in the Divinity School.

He said Lewis “was one of the most remarkable human beings. He wasn’t arrogant.” And he rose up to become the “conscious of the United States.”

The weekend’s activities were organized by The Rep. John Lewis Memorial Celebration Committee, the Rep. John Lewis Way Committee and the Rep. John Lewis Mural Committee. 

“It was the movement of the people that inspired us to move with a tenacious spirit regarding this event,” said Dr. Phyllis Qualls, who chaired the Memorial Celebration committee and served as Mistress of Ceremonies and on the other two committees. “For us it was more than a project, it was a celebration of our own.”

ABC President Dr. Forrest E. Harris Sr. presented a watercolor of Griggs Hall, the dorm where Lewis lived while a student to his family. There was also a plaque inducting him into the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Hall of Fame.

Nashville U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper said his friend in the U.S. House of Representatives “liked to create opportunities for good trouble.” He recalled how once Lewis sat on the floor of the House to call attention to an issue. No one knew quite what to do, he said. Eventually, he was joined by his Democratic colleagues and they sat for hours on the floor.

And to loud applause, Cooper said he is proud to vote for the passage of the Rep. John Lewis Voting Rights Act.  “He knew he was on the right side of history and on the right side of God,” he said of Lewis.