Tony Hall says that John Lewis taught him fighting for justice isn’t enough. How we do it matters.
We are in time of great struggle and unrest in America. We see divisions play out in Congress, on social media and in the streets.
What’s our path forward? How do we close the breach? We have an answer in my friend the late Congressman John Lewis. It was my privilege to work with him for years. I was honored when he called me in and asked me to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in an reenactment of the Selma March where he was almost beaten to death.
This was the John Lewis the world saw — a passionate leader for civil rights committed to ensuring that every American has the opportunity to vote. It was the private John Lewis who really taught us how we can heal as individuals and as a nation. I want to share a powerful story that really illustrates we can move beyond our disagreements.
This happened in 2000 during our weekly prayer group for members of Congress. The prayer group is a place where members from both parties come together in fellowship and prayer in a private setting. During my years in Congress, this was always important to me. It was a time when we got to know each other on a deeply personal level, shared about our lives, learned to be vulnerable and in doing so built lasting bonds of trust and respect.
John was our featured speaker on this day, sharing his courageous story about the Freedom Riders on their way to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1961 as part of their efforts to desegregate the interstate bus system. John and others had boarded the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. They were met at the state line by the Mississippi National Guard and taken straight to jail simply for riding the bus. That National Guard commander who arrested them, Gen. G. V. “Sonny” Montgomery, had later become a member of Congress. Remarkably, he was present in our prayer meeting. John Lewis locked eyes on him, stopped his talk and walked back to where he was seated. Sonny stood up and they hugged in a long, deep embrace. We all stood in reverence for this powerful moment. For that instance, there were no Republicans or Democrats in the room, only humans united in awe of the power of forgiveness, the power of love. It was an unforgettable moment and one that touched all of us.
At that moment, he showed us the way forward past the divisions and conflicts. You won’t find a more dedicated fighter for civil rights than John Lewis. But as the story reminds us, his passion was driven by love for those he sought to help, not hatred for those on the other side. The next several months will be heated, contentious and divisive. We need to pray and reflect on how we build bridges across the social chasms of our nation. I’m so impressed with those carrying on John’s work, continuing the effort to bring needed reforms to end the injustices that still hold down too many Americans.
Fighting for justice isn’t enough. How we do it also matters. I think of the lessons I have learned from John Lewis and Mother Theresa, from the words of Dr. King and from my faith that can be summed up in a quote from John Lewis: “What I try to tell young people is that if you come together with a mission, and it’s grounded with love and a sense of community, you can make the impossible possible.”
It’s not the easiest path, but it’s the right path.
Voices Column by Ambassador Tony Hall, appeared in the Dayton Daily News Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020. Ambassador Hall is the former congressman from the Dayton Areas, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture and the Founder of the Hall Hunger Initiative. HHI is supported by the Jack W. and Sally D. Eichelberger Foundation.