Nearly 15 years ago, Brenda Jones and her husband toured the Deep South, visiting key places in civil-rights history. One of their stops was Selma, Alabama, where John Lewis and other peaceful protesters began their famous march to Montgomery in 1965. The pair carried Lewis' book, "Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement," as their guide. Neither of them knew the congressman at the time.
Two years later, Jones was guiding Lewis as his communications director. Since 2003, she's maintained the image of the veteran Georgia representative, the last living "Big Six" leader of the Civil Rights movement. Though Lewis entered public office well-known, colleagues say that Jones' efforts have continued to boost his profile.
"When he came here, he was already an icon," Jones says, sitting in the congressman's office, where photos of Lewis and civil-rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. fill the walls. "What I was hired to do was to build his status and influence within the press, so that his iconic status is something people were aware of, not just on Capitol Hill or in Atlanta, but nationally and internationally."
In her role, Jones pens nearly all of Lewis' published opinions, statements, and speeches, ranging from commencement addresses to his remarks at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Jones also is his gatekeeper, fielding inquiries from reporters who want Lewis' comments, book authors who hope he'll contribute a chapter, and documentary producers vying for his input.
On Capitol Hill, Jones is known as an honest broker—and as a workhorse who labors outside of the limelight. Over her time in the House, colleagues credit her with turning Lewis into a household name.
"Now, basically everyone in America knows who he is," says Kimberly Ross, the chief of staff to Democratic Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio. "Brenda, in her own quiet way, had a lot to do with that."
As the 50th anniversary of the Selma march approached earlier this year, Jones saw the occasion as a critical moment to boost Lewis, who leads an annual trip to the site.
"I looked at Selma as one of those opportunities where we really had to hit the ball out of the park," she says. "We had to get him in front of everybody who might be vying for the spotlight."
So about three weeks before the commemoration, Jones invited journalists to meet Lewis on Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge, where he and other civil-rights marchers faced a bloody confrontation with police 50 years ago. Reporters gathered from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., taking photos and videos that spawned hundreds of media hits for Lewis. A notebook of his Selma press clippings from this year is 5 inches thick.
Jones began her career in journalism, working in Washington at ABC News and WTOP-AM before shifting to public relations. One year after her 2001 trip to the Deep South, Jones' husband died, leaving her devastated and unsure of her next professional move. Months later, a friend told her about an opening in Lewis' office, and she was called in for an interview. It came on the one-year anniversary of her husband's death.
Since their first meeting, Jones and Lewis have forged a lasting bond.
"The congressman only needs to speak a few sentences, and Brenda has an incredible ability to put down on paper what he says to her," says Michael Collins, Lewis' chief of staff.
That connection was on display in 2008, when Lewis told Jones they should collaborate on a book about his life philosophy. Jones was intimidated by the challenge: She had never written a book, and wanted to make sure her final product would offer an honest account of the civil-rights movement.
To prepare, Jones read books from philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and consulted expert sources, including members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was organized by Shaw University students in the 1960s, and which Lewis once chaired. In regular early-morning phone calls, Lewis told Jones about the lessons he's learned.
The book, Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change, was released in 2012 and won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work/Biography.
Colleagues say Jones is never one to boast about that award, or any others. It's that humility, they add, that makes Jones a good match for Lewis.
"People listen very carefully to every word that comes out of his mouth," says Hannah Kim, communications director for Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel of New York. "That's Brenda to me. She's his whisperer."
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Kimberly Railey is an editorial fellow for National Journal Hotline. Prior to joining National Journal, she covered Congress at the Washington bureau of The Dallas Morning News. She has also written for The Boston Globe, USA TODAY, and The Christian Science Monitor. Originally from South Florida, she graduated from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where she served as managing editor of The Daily Northwestern.