July 31, 2020 KELLEY KIDD When a friend introduced me to John Lewis in 1970 he was a world famous civil rights hero. He had been among the first practitioners of nonviolent direct action when he led the sit-ins at lunch counters close to his college campus. And one of the first freedom riders who integrated buses in other Southern cities. Elected as the first President of the Student Nonviolent Coording Committee, he led the shock troops of the movement until the Black Power advocates led by Stokely Carmichael voted to evict the white folks, then he had resigned. He had expanded his advocacy for what he called “the beloved community” by demonstrating for peace in Southeast Asia, for desegregated housing in Chicago, for fair conditions for nurses in South Carolina, for community control of education in New York City, for farm workers in California, and for the Poor Peoples Campaign. And most famously he had been at the forefront of the demonstrators when the Alabama troopers charged and beat him and others for daring to demonstrate for giving Black folks the simple right to register and vote. In short, John Lewis was already a legend. I was a white guy with a few years of service in trying to educate federal employees about the need for federal responsiveness to the problems of inner city poor people.
Despite the huge disparity of importance between us, John talked with me exactly as though our worth was unquestionably equal. He steered the conversation to my work and aspirations as though my life’s work was the most important subject. His speech impediment and the simplicity of his words left the unmistakable impression of a man who thought of himself as ordinary. Nobody special. I had worked a little for and with his friend Julian Bond, the smartest, coolest, most patrician person I knew. The contrast between these civil rights giants was striking. But even then I think I knew that in his own way John was what he has remained—the most irreplaceable person I would ever know. When I learned of his death two weeks ago I started to cry. I only came out of sobbing grief by telling understanding friends stories about John for hours on end.
Just this week I have learned from a white friend that he had come to Atlanta to volunteer to work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the early 60s, He needed a place to stay. John put that friend and his girl friend in John’s apartment. There was only one bed. John insisted that the white couple from some place up north sleep in John’s bed while John took the sofa.
John never wavered, never hated, never surrendered to evil or to the demands of social respectability, never ignored human need for necessities and for basic dignity, never gave up on sinners or on the struggle to help those sinners to salvation, never despaired or whined or griped or made excuses for himself or his actions. His steadfast courage and love and vision have been surpassed by nobody. We have truly been blessed that he walked among us. Like John, we must keep “walking with the wind.”