By Emil Guillermo
I would see John Lewis when I worked as a press secretary in the 103rd Congress. He was still young and feisty, just in his 50s, and had the fire to turn an ordinary one-minute speech on the House floor into a bit of passionate rhetorical magnificence. It could be on anything, but more likely it was something extraordinary, like a stirring defense of people of color, or anyone in need of Lewis’ caring yet forceful voice.
There was always a special comfort knowing that John Lewis was there for all of us.
And now all Filipino Americans, all Asian Americans, who understand our place in the fight for racial justice mourn his passing.
I’ll miss him as our human barometer for all that is right in society. But the truth is Lewis will never be far from our hearts and minds.
For those of us who continue to fight against all the ills, all the time, Lewis was immortalized on a Sunday in March 1965.
That day Lewis became our conscience and our partner, when he made his courageous choice in Selma, Alabama to lead 600 people in a voting rights march to Montgomery across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
As they came off the bridge, Lewis faced state troopers in a moment captured by an iconic photograph. It shows a young Lewis in a tan raincoat, his knees to the ground as a helmeted officer wielding a nightstick is about to tee-off.
“I was the first person to be hit, and I still have a spot on my forehead,” he told CBS News.
The attack on Lewis is one of the lasting images of “Bloody Sunday.”
“I really believe to this day I saw death,” Lewis explained to correspondent Rita Braver. “We had to do it, we had to do it. I think there’s some force, sometimes I call it the spirit of history that maybe just maybe tracked us down and said this is your time. And you must do it; if you don’t, who will?”
It is the call that must be answered. Lewis answered the call.
Do you hear your call? Will you answer?
It may just be the call to march, like many of us felt after George Floyd’s death.
The knee to Floyd’s neck is as loud a call as the nightstick to Lewis’ head.
I heard a call to march in 2013, seven years ago in late August.
Lewis was in Washington, DC leading the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, a key civil rights march that culminated in MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
At the commemorative march, I got to the front and snapped this picture with Lewis at the helm. As they went by, I was overwhelmed by all the people who answered the call.
But there was nothing nostalgic about this march. It was the reaffirmation after half a century of the fight for justice on all fronts in our country–for health care, immigration rights, gay and transgender rights, environmental rights, labor rights, voting rights.
I remember seeing so many Filipinos Americans from all walks of life. Whole families, individuals with their rights groups.
And then a few days later, on the actual anniversary day of Dr. King’s “Dream” speech, there was Lewis to remind us how we were all still in this together.
“We may have come here on different ships, but we are all in the same boat now,” Lewis said. “So, it doesn’t matter if we’re black or white, Latinos, Asian Americans, or Native American, gay or straight, we are one people, we are one family, we all live in the same house. Not just an American house but the world house.”
That was in 2013. Maybe we got complacent.
It’s hard to imagine that in seven short years, the United States is more divided than ever, with our rights in all the different areas we marched for through the years under attack and more precarious and endangered like never before.
The call we must answer now is loud and clear. It’s spread throughout society, and sometimes obscured by the obscene shadow cast by the pandemic’s wrath.
The president may not be acting swiftly to address the problem at hand of COVID-19 caseloads and death rates, testing and tracing.
But he’s doing all he can to undo healthcare, a woman’s right to choose, and immigration rights. As people march to reform our police methods, the administration is moving toward an unseemly authoritarianism as secret police actions take place in Portland, Oregon; he now threatens to use similar tactics in other cities across the nation.
And then there’s the administration’s war to deny voting rights, disenfranchise felons, reapply poll taxes, and discredit vote-by-mail. The scar on Lewis’ head was for voting rights. At the very least, Congress should move to restore all the parts recently gutted from the Voting Rights Act.
At a 2017 speech honoring Dr. King, Lewis gave us all our forever prescription for social justice.
“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something, to say something, and not be quiet.”
In his passing, we are reminded to heed Lewis’ simple, practical admonishments, now more than ever.
Even from your perspective in paradise. Follow Lewis’ call. Add your voice now.
EMIL GUILLERMO is a journalist and commentator. He was a columnist for the Star-Bulletin and an editorial board member of the Advertiser. Twitter @emilamok. Listen to his podcasts on amok.com.