Nominate an Alaskan Black Trailblazer
I was proud that John Lewis was a friend of mine. I met him when I was in law school. He came to speak and I went up and I said, “Mr. Lewis, you are one of my heroes. What inspired me more than anything as a young man was to see what you and Reverend Lawson and Bob Moses and Diane Nash and others did.” And he got that kind of — aw shucks, thank you very much.
The next time I saw him, I had been elected to the United States Senate. And I told him, “John, I am here because of you.” On Inauguration Day in 2008, 2009, he was one of the first people that I greeted and hugged on that stand. I told him, “This is your day too.”
He was a good and kind and gentle man. And he believed in us — even when we don’t believe in ourselves. It’s fitting that the last time John and I shared a public forum was on Zoom. I am pretty sure that neither he nor I set up the Zoom call because we didn’t know how to work it. It was a virtual town hall with a gathering of young activists who had been helping to lead this summer’s demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death. And afterwards, I spoke to John privately, and he could not have been prouder to see this new generation of activists standing up for freedom and equality; a new generation that was intent on voting and protecting the right to vote; in some cases, a new generation running for political office.
I told him, all those young people, John — of every race and every religion, from every background and gender and sexual orientation — John, those are your children. They learned from your example, even if they didn’t always know it. They had understood, through him, what American citizenship requires, even if they had only heard about his courage through the history books.
“By the thousands, faceless, anonymous, relentless young people, Black and white … have taken our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
Dr. King said that in the 1960s. And it came true again this summer.
We see it outside our windows, in big cities and rural towns, in men and women, young and old, straight Americans and LGBTQ Americans, Blacks who long for equal treatment and whites who can no longer accept freedom for themselves while witnessing the subjugation of their fellow Americans. We see it in everybody doing the hard work of overcoming complacency, of overcoming our own fears and our own prejudices, our own hatreds. You see it in people trying to be better, truer versions of ourselves.
And that’s what John Lewis teaches us.
That’s where real courage comes from. Not from turning on each other, but by turning towards one another.
Not by sowing hatred and division, but by spreading love and truth.
Not by avoiding our responsibilities to create a better America and a better world, but by embracing those responsibilities with joy and perseverance and discovering that in our beloved community, we do not walk alone.
What a gift John Lewis was. We are all so lucky to have had him walk with us for a while, and show us the way.
God bless you all. God bless America. God bless this gentle soul who pulled it closer to its promise.
— Barack Obama, 2020