Updated at 5:38 p.m. ET on July 18, 2020.
John Lewis believed in the American project and wanted to perfect it.
On August 28, 1963, Lewis stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before hundreds of thousands of people, but his mind was on those who could not be there. He thought of the Black people in Danville, Virginia, living under the heavy baton of a police state; of the sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta, working for starvation wages; of the three young men facing the death penalty in Georgia for protesting. “We will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace,” Lewis told the crowd. “I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation. Get in the streets and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete.” Lewis was just 23 years old. Shortly after he said those words, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Lewis, whose death from pancreatic cancer at age 80 was announced late last night, lived a revolutionary life as an activist, organizer, and representative who became known to many as the “soul” of Congress. “There were moments when we had the votes [to pass legislation] in terms of sheer Democratic majority, but the will was not there to get things done,” Jaime Harrison, who worked with Lewis as the majority floor director in the House, told me. “It was always John Lewis who would step up. And when John Lewis got up to speak, everybody listened.” Harrison is now running to unseat South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham in the Senate, on a platform of registering disenfranchised Black voters across the state.