John Lewis: Leading by Example

When a great political leader dies, the usual stories told about him or her focus on accomplishments that moved the nation. I’ve been touched by the extent of memories about John Lewis that are coming from constituents, neighbors, and strangers.

July 29, 2020, 6:00 AM PDT

By Bruce Stiftel @BruceStiftel

Civil Rights

Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock

Like so many of you, I am taken with the recollections of Congressman John R. Lewis pouring out across the country. Our country has benefited from his extraordinary dedication to justice and his remarkable effectiveness as a politician. That he was my Congressman is satisfying, even though I had virtually nothing to do with his work.

When a great political leader dies, the usual stories told about him or her focus on accomplishments that moved the nation. There are plenty of those being shared this week, about the civil rights era, Atlanta city governance, national policymaking, and symbolic work that frames the way so many view the role of government in our society. Beyond those though, I’ve been touched by the extent of memories about John Lewis the man that are coming from constituents, neighbors, friends, associates and even strangers.

Among the memories of Congressman John Lewis in the press and social media this week have been many stories of his kind outreach to anyone he met. Apparently, a Lewis trip to the grocery store would last hours as he stopped to chat with anyone who approached him. One constituent described meeting the congressman in Macy’s where he invited her children to help him pick out a tie. Another showed up in Lewis’ Washington office unannounced and the congressman spent an hour with her. Family and friends in Troy, Alabama, and from his SNCC days, make clear that as Lewis added new friends, he kept up contact with the old ones.

Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson spoke about his long friendship with Democrat and fellow Georgian Lewis and how they often collaborated behind the scenes to find common ground between the parties. Friendship across party lines as overture to joint problem solving used to be common in political leadership in this country. It is much less frequent today. Listening to those who knew John Lewis well, I am coming to appreciate that he truly believed all of us shared a home and needed to care for each other to protect our shared lives.

Last winter, when Congressman Lewis’ illness became widely known, some neighbors organized a get well photo card from the block. The photo is a small piece of evidence of how he moved us toward the beloved community. Rest in power, John Lewis.

Neighbors wishing their congressman well. (Image courtesy of Bruce Stiftel)

Bruce Stiftel

Bruce Stiftel, FAICP, is professor emeritus of city and regional planning at Georgia Institute of Technology.

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