Who Gets the Last Word?

America is exhausted…

In the middle of the most devastating pandemic in 102 years, Americans watched the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis. They learned of the police break-in and murder of an innocent black woman, Breonna Taylor, in Louisville. They watched as police used tear-gas and flashbangs to break up a peaceful protest in Washington in order to give the president a Biblical photo op. They saw unidentified federal troops dispatched to Portland and Seattle to quell “violent left wing” Black Lives Matter protests . 

The truth is there were no “violent left-wing” protests in Portland or Seattle that required federal troops. There were violent clashes between police and a few provocateurs, but federal troops were neither necessary nor requested by local authorities. In fact, their presence escalated the violence. They were sent so Trump could use video footage of the clashes for his “law and order” political ads. 

While all this was happening, on July 17, John Lewis, the civil rights icon who was arrested more than 40 times for his non-violent civil rights activity and who served 34 years in the US House of Representatives, died. A week of national mourning followed. There were memorial events in his hometown of Troy, Alabama, a lying-in-state in the US Capitol, and a final funeral ceremony at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta before he was laid to rest at South-View Cemetery next to Lillian, his wife of 52 years.

Donald Trump never even bothered to acknowledge Mr. Lewis’ death though the entire nation was mourning his passing.

The contrast is alarming; a man of peace and extraordinary virtue known as the “conscience of Congress” dies and his president says nothing about it. John Robert Lewis, Uncle Robert to his family, is an American saint, while Donald John Trump, his president, is heir to and godfather of a vast criminal enterprise.

John Lewis fought racism and white supremacy with his whole being. He had a scar on his forehead from the police beating he got on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Donald Trump, the bone-spur suffering Commander in Chief, was a racist and his family were white supremacists long before 1973 when they were sued and convicted for discriminating against African Americans in housing.

Donald Trump will continue to talk, but John Lewis gets the last word. Here is the Op-Ed he wrote and published posthumously the day he was buried:

Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation

“While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.

That is why I had to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, though I was admitted to the hospital the following day. I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on.

Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. He was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time. I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me. In those days, fear constrained us like an imaginary prison, and troubling thoughts of potential brutality committed for no understandable reason were the bars.

Though I was surrounded by two loving parents, plenty of brothers, sisters and cousins, their love could not protect me from the unholy oppression waiting just outside that family circle. Unchecked, unrestrained violence and government-sanctioned terror had the power to turn a simple stroll to the store for some Skittles or an innocent morning jog down a lonesome country road into a nightmare. If we are to survive as one unified nation, we must discover what so readily takes root in our hearts that could rob Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina of her brightest and best, shoot unwitting concertgoers in Las Vegas and choke to death the hopes and dreams of a gifted violinist like Elijah McClain.

Like so many young people today, I was searching for a way out, or some might say a way in, and then I heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio. He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.

Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.

You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.

Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.

When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”

RIP John Robert Lewis


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