Events, great and trivial, spin away the instant they happen; the men and women who enacted or witnessed them last longer, but in time go too. Representative John Lewis (D, Ga.), who died of pancreatic cancer at age 80, was the last surviving speaker of the 1963 March on Washington. The clips of him speaking that day, and the photos and clips of him marching in protests throughout the segregated south, show a young man, determined, pugnacious, eager to fight, but fighting only with the non-violent weapons he had chosen.
Lewis was beaten 40 times by cops, state troopers, or hostile mobs; he spent 31 days in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm prison. He was the first chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a post he was ousted from by Stokely Carmichael, who was eager to use other weapons. After his years of activism, he entered politics, contesting a primary in 1986 for a congressional seat against another young black leader, Julian Bond. Bond was polished, lighter-skinned. Lewis told primary voters they should pick a work horse, not a show horse. He beat Bond narrowly, then won and held his Atlanta seat ever since.
And his congressional career was . . . almost indistinguishable from any other left-wing black Democrat. He voted against wars, and for programs that often distressingly failed to deliver their idealistic promises. In 2010, he was one of three congressmen who claimed that Tea Party members screamed racial epithets and spat at them as they walked from Capitol Hill. The charge of spitting was withdrawn, and no tape was ever produced that captured the epithets.
Yet in that aged form, encrusted by partisanship and reverence, that brave young man could still be discerned. His fellow Georgia congressman Newt Gingrich was wont to remind conservative, white audiences that Lewis bore literal scars from the fight for civil rights — rights that were promised in the post–Civil War amendments, but took a century, and the efforts of the brave, to make real. R.I.P.