He was a gentle and elegant son of a sharecropper who saw the best in America when Americans who claimed the country for themselves had turned her into something twisted and ugly.
He ran at first toward an education at a theological seminary, then at Fisk University and then toward an actual school of hard knocks, finding his way into a protest movement that used boycotts and sit-ins to upend a system where Southern segregation was all but written in stone.
Running as one of the first 13 Freedom Riders who were beaten with lead pipes, baseball bats and chains. Running even as he slow-walked toward a phalanx of Alabama state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a bridge named for a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, a bridge that by now should bear his name. Moving with full deliberation toward the helmeted men in blue, his hands in his pockets and a knapsack on his back containing two books, an apple, an orange, toothpaste and a toothbrush. If he survived that March 1965 encounter, he knew he would not be getting home soon.
Running again and again toward protests that he fully expected to end in arrest. Running toward danger, always toward danger, for he came of age in an era where black life was extinguished with alarming regularity — shootings, bombings, beatings, hangings. Death that was almost never followed by justice in a Jim Crow system where black labor was necessary to stoke the economy, but black bodies were treated at best with contempt.
Running toward the people who hated him but with an erect posture, hoping the world, and even the attacker, would see the violence and the spittle and understand that hatred is itself a shackle. He knew that any man who held him down in that proverbial ditch would never rise above the muck himself.
Running even though he thought he was going to die, not once but several times. Running because, as he said, “We may not have chosen the time, but the time has chosen us.”
Running while marching. Running while carrying protest signs held high in the air. Running with a smile and a furrowed brow. Running with an open heart — one that was strong enough to comfort men who beat him in his youth and came to his doorstep later in life, graying and bent, seeking forgiveness.
Running for office, as a city council member, a congressman, running for reelection 16 times. Running with pride but recognizing that his election, and even the election of Barack Obama, were merely “down payments” on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream. And he ran while urging those running alongside him not to become the thing they’re fighting against — especially as America once again became more divided, more segregated, more tribal.
Running past anger when it would have been reasonable to settle in for a good long time at a place of resentment and retribution. But when I think of John Lewis, I see an affable warrior. Indeed, one of my indelible memories is of an aging congressman dancing on the downbeat in his office to a hit song called of all things, “Happy.”
With age, he moved more slowly than he had before, especially since December when he announced that he was battling pancreatic cancer. But he kept moving, always shoving this country forward, his mind set on change and his shoulder leaning hard into the rocks of resistance.
Running while mentoring. Running like a man who said “no” to hate but “yes” to almost every invitation that landed in his box. There were so many invitations, constant speeches, endless accolades and awards, nonstop travel, not so much for the glory but for the opportunity to show a new generation what a boy from Troy, Ala., could do with his life. This allowed him to issue invitations of his own: Run with me. Run past me. Run toward what he called “the beloved community” — a nation at peace with itself. If we work hard and work smart and stir up good trouble, we can build a truly great America — not one balanced on the precarious two-legged stool of white supremacy and minority subjugation.
His life was a revolution. A revelation. A master class. A miracle. A road map.
But a relay man always relies on someone else to finish the work. That billy club that became a baton is now in our hands. The work is now ours to do. The race is ours to win.