Meeting a hero: Rep. John Lewis

On one occasion early in the Obama presidency, while I was a graduate student at American University, I was my dad’s plus-one to a happy hour-of-sorts at the White House. There, we were free to socialize and roam the main floor. That evening I got to shake the president’s and Michelle Obama’s hands, Vice President Joe Biden’s hand.

At one point, my dad said, “Come here, you have to meet the coolest person in the room.” I couldn’t imagine who in the world could possibly compare to the other American giants I’d met that evening.

But, there in the Entrance Hall of the White House was where I first met U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who died on July 17 at the age of 80. Of course, my dad was right, as he later remarked, “Obama’s cool, but John Lewis is a hero.”

Some time later, as part of my grad school program, I was teaching a semester of history at School Without Walls. It’s called School Without Walls, in part, because teachers and students are encouraged to use the resources outside of the school (museums, monuments, libraries and so on) in their educational experience.

One of the units I had the fortune of teaching was the Civil Rights Movement. For a 20-something white guy from Kentucky, “teaching” the Civil Rights Movement to a 95%-non-white class of teenagers was a daunting challenge. I thought I’d wow them, so I asked my dad if we could find a time for me to bring the students to his office on Capitol Hill for a class discussion on civil rights.

“I think I can do one better,” he said. Again, he was right.

He asked Rep. Lewis if he would host the class. Lewis, according to my dad, was excited to host us, which he did, for over an hour in his office.

With kids on Congressman Lewis’ office sofa, chairs, floor and even the chair behind his desk, Lewis started by showing a short film featuring himself and his role in the civil rights movement, which included video from Bloody Sunday, when Lewis was nearly beaten to death by Alabama police while he and protesters tried to cross the bridge to Selma. During a clip of Lewis’ speech from the March on Washington, I remember as one Black student turned to look at Lewis, nearly 50 years older than the man standing before the Lincoln Memorial and recognizing the gravity of the 5-foot 5-inch giant standing in the corner of the room.

Teachers often talk about the satisfaction watching the “lightbulb go on” when a student “gets it.” I wasn’t prepared to fight back tears watching this particular student, as he discovered a hero.

As much as I cherish this moment and the opportunity to introduce this group of kids to a civil rights icon, it is also the source of some resentment — for realizing the void in my own education. I knew who Martin Luther King Jr. was at a young age. Not Lewis and countless others.

I can’t say for sure that John Lewis’ name was not included in any of my schoolbooks. Yet, I’d be willing to bet that Edmund Pettus’ name — as in the Edmund Pettus Bridge that activists crossed on Bloody Sunday — is in more schoolbooks than John Lewis’ name. Edmund Pettus was a Confederate brigadier general, later a U.S. senator and grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. In the context of the civil rights movement, how can the name most associated with Bloody Sunday in history books be that of the traitor and terrorist?

As long as the bridge stands, it will be synonymous with John Lewis and civil rights. It needs to be renamed, so John Lewis’ name is honored and the other’s forgotten. One serves to inspire. The other serves no purpose. The history books need to change, too. We don’t know how many heroes we’re missing out on.

I had hoped to one day take my son, JD, nearly 1, to Washington to meet John Lewis, if for no other reason than to have the picture. And, perhaps, one day I could relive the moment when he realized that he, too, met the man who spoke alongside King at the March on Washington.

Unfortunately, we will never be able to take that picture. But, I will make sure that the moment he learns who Dr. King was, he will learn who John Lewis was: his grandfather’s friend… and his hero.