John Lewis’ unending quest for a better country

Several years ago, on the day after John Lewis appeared at the Kentucky Author Forum in Louisville, he sought me out on the House floor. He grabbed and hugged me and then said, “I had one of the greatest days of my life in your city.” I was so proud that Louisville had made such a positive impression on him, just as he had made such an impression on the packed house the night before. 

He raved about the people he had met, and he said he was wowed by the Victorian homes in Old Louisville. He told me he couldn’t wait to return to Louisville and spend more time touring. That return never came. 

John Lewis’ death was not a surprise. Pancreatic cancer doesn’t spare many. Just before the pandemic effectively shut down Congress, I walked with John from the Cannon Office building, where we both have our offices, to the House floor. He was frail, and he walked much more slowly than his customary fast pace. He was upbeat, told me his treatment was going well, and he was determined to see Trumpism defeated this November. When we were banished from the Hill for months, I suspected I would never see him again, and that has become the sad reality.

But more than the personal loss I and many of his colleagues feel, his departure from the scene leaves an enormous chasm in the moral foundation of our nation. If Donald Trump is the Grand Canyon of morality, John Lewis was Pike’s Peak, if not the entire Rocky Mountain range.

John Lewis
U.S. Rep. John Lewis and Democrats including U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth staged a sit-in to demand action on commonsense gun legislation in 2016.

The world has paid extensive and justifiable tributes to John Lewis following his passing, and trust me that they not only understate but fail miserably to capture the great human being he was.

I am not a deeply religious person, but every time I was with John Lewis, I sensed divinity in him. I always felt that he was in a different category of politicians, someone out of his element — I should say above his element — whose primary purpose in Congress was to keep nudging the rest of us toward our better angels and away from our worst instincts. And whenever he would address me as “my brother” — as he addressed most of us — I felt I had been ordained by some superior being.

Early in my congressional life, my son, Aaron, was student teaching in Washington. One day he asked if he could bring his class to the Hill to talk with me about the civil rights movement. I told him I thought I could do better than that, and I asked John if he would meet with the class. He enthusiastically agreed, and a short time later, Aaron and 18 young Black men and women showed up at this office. He spent an hour engaging with the students, and judging by their expressions, he left an impression that would long affect their lives. I can only imagine what those young men have been thinking these past few days.

One other incident will forever paint my memory of John Lewis. In 2016, seven or eight of us decided we would disrupt the House proceedings in an effort to pressure Republicans to hold a vote on gun safety legislation. We met in John’s office, recruited more members and agreed we would meet outside the House floor at 11:30 the next morning. When roughly 20 of us got there, the only idea anyone had was for us to stand silently in front of the dais. 

No one was really excited about that, and we looked to John. “Why don’t we stage a sit-in?” he suggested. “I know a little bit about sit-ins.” And so we did, and a few hours later our ranks had swollen to more than 100, the business of the House was stopped, and the world watched as our protest went on for 24 hours. John Lewis was there every minute.

Few people are able to say they have walked with giants. I am blessed to have walked with one to and from the House floor, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and metaphorically behind him in his unending quest for a better country. His friendship was a blessing to me, and to the United States of America. 

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, founder of LEO, has represented Kentucky’s 3rd Congressional District since 2007 and is now chairman of the House Budget Committee.