There is never a good day to die, but everyone’s time comes anyway. It came for John Lewis on July 17, 2020, and it marked the end of an era — but perhaps, too, the beginning of a new one.
John Lewis was the last surviving speaker of the March on Washington rally in August 1963, and was the last speaker of that day. It may be surprising that anyone spoke after Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech, the greatest American political speech of the twentieth century, but John Lewis did. He was 23 years old.
Two years later, John Lewis got his skull cracked open trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and he told people he thought he was going to die. It wasn’t his time. He lived to be 80, and though there is never a good day to die there may be one which is timely. John Lewis always talked about getting into “good trouble,” meaning nonviolent activism on behalf of social justice. He left us at a time of very bad trouble, with a raging pandemic, a broken economy and a raving clown trying to take us all down with him as he plunges toward ruin. He left us, too, stunned by the image of a man getting the life crushed out of him by a policeman’s knee as he lay handcuffed in the gutter, the horror that finally roused a country that has slept for 50 years.
The horror was not enough, because a political system so long unresponsive to justice, so inured to corruption and state violence, could not be turned by George Floyd or the other cases we are awakening to; it was unable a few months earlier to remove a president guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors at a cost of, as it now stands, more than 150,000 American lives.
We needed something more, an image not simply of the worst within us but of the best, of a deeply noble life lived, as John Lewis must have known it would be after Martin Luther King’s assassination, in a dark time that he could only hope in his last days might be finally lifted. A lot of things paused for the period that John Lewis made his final journey back to his native Alabama; in Selma across what is still called the Edmund Pettus bridge in a caisson drawn by horses; then to the rotunda of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. as the first African-American ever so honored; back south to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta for the public tributes and eulogies, and finally for burial beside his wife.
But he had some final words for us, reserved for posthumous publication in The New York Times and reminding us that, as John Dewey had said long before, democracy was ultimately not a system of government but a way of behaving toward each other as members of a Beloved Community, the circle of love and respect that enables us to cherish each other in our differences and even disputes. We needed such words from such a man as we have seldom needed them before. But, even in the Ebenezer Baptist Church service that was the climax of the obsequies, there was a painful reminder of how we have come to be where we are and how long the road to travel has become. There was stirring gospel-singing, heartfelt tributes from family members, friends, colleagues and staff, and a fine and wise sermon by the Rev. Raphael Warnock. But then there was the rogues’ gallery. We have five living presidents.
Donald Trump would not come to Atlanta, the man who called John Lewis a man of words rather than actions, and whose own actions are almost uniformly wicked as his words are overwhelmingly lies. Jimmy Carter, bowed with age, could not come, although he sent gracious words. That left Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Clinton’s popularity in the African-American community was such that he was for a time referred to as America’s first Black president.
That didn’t last long, and Clinton had given the lie to it on the campaign trail in 1992 when, as Governor of Arkansas, he not only permitted the execution of Ricky Lee Rector, an African-American prisoner whose self-inflicted gunshot wound had left him unable to understand the nature of his crime or the punishment he was about to receive, but traveled home for it to show how tough he was on crime. Under Clinton, two of the most savage statutes in American penal history were passed, the Violent Criminal Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1995, which, among other things, added some sixty new capital offenses to the federal penal code and enshrined the notorious Three Strikes rule under which conviction for three felonies, no matter how minor, bought an automatic life sentence.
These statutes helped to nearly double the prison population of the United States by the time Clinton left office, making it the largest in the world. Black Americans were considerably overrepresented in this number. George Bush showed up in Atlanta, his patented smirk intact, but his address should be the Hague. After ignoring frantic warnings about the 9/11 attacks in what may have been the greatest dereliction of duty ever by an American president, facilitating the escape from American jurisdiction of the state actor most responsible for them — Saudi Arabia; attacking Afghanistan instead in what has become the longest war in American history, Bush lied us into war with Iraq, made torture an official instrument of national policy, and left us with the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. Barack Obama came last.
Far from investigating Bush’s crimes, he chummed with him in a rehabilitation that climaxed in the National Constitution Center’s award of its Liberty Medal, an honor presented to Bush by Obama’s own vice president. You’ll recall the name: Joe Biden. As for Obama himself, he returned Wall Street’s stolen profits with interest while millions of Americans were evicted from their homes, and millions more suffered through the most agonizingly slow recovery since the 1930s.
He withdrew Bush’s torture memorandums but did him one better, not only authorizing targeted assassinations of American citizens but attempting to promulgate what might be called the Obama Doctrine, that due process of law does not require public trial. He praised Bush’s illegal war in Iraq as a crusade for freedom and democracy and doubled down on the one in Afghanistan. He left three other Middle Eastern countries devastated: Syria, Libya and Yemen — the latter in collaboration with our dear friends, the Saudis.
In the waning days of the 2016 presidential campaign, Obama appealed directly to African-Americans to protect his legacy with their votes. Clinton, Bush and Obama could do nothing to dim the achievement of John Lewis’ life. They could do nothing to usurp its glory. John Lewis showed us the road ahead.
The three miscreants who came to bury him showed how long it will be. But, as Lewis told us in his parting words, we must walk it all the way.