While there is life there is hope. As for statistics, I will spare us any thoughts on the meaning of a Stage 4 pancreatic cancer diagnosis, which Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) announced this afternoon. For decades Lewis has been one of history’s immortals who is yet still walking among us. Elected to Congress in 1986, Lewis has now served almost 34 years as a member of the Georgia congressional delegation. But at 46, when he came to Congress, he had already accomplished enough for several lifetimes. Indeed, one could say the same by the time he turned 26.
Lewis is the last of the so-called “Big Six,” the six pillars of the Civil Rights Movement who organized the March on Washington in 1963. Most of the other five have been dead for decades — Martin Luther King (SCLC) in 1968, Whitney Young (National Urban League) in 1971, A. Philip Randolph (Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) in 1979, Roy Wilkins (NAACP) in 1981 and James Farmer (CORE) in 1999. Lewis was the Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the pivotal three years from 1963 to 1966, as well as one of its founders in 1960. His earliest activism had been as a leader of the lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville and then as one of the original 13 “Freedom Riders.”
When he spoke at the March on Washington, he was 23.
As I’m sure it is for many of you this news just lands like a punch in the gut. That would be the case at any time but especially now when so much is uncertain, when even the course of our national story seems in doubt.
Here are the closing lines of Lewis’s speech at the March on Washington in 1963.
“They’re talking about slow down and stop. We will not stop. All of the forces of Eastland, Barnett, Wallace, and Thurmond will not stop this revolution. If we do not get meaningful legislation out of this Congress, the time will come when we will not confine our marching to Washington. We will march through the South; through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham. But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today. By the force of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy. We must say: ‘Wake up America! Wake up!’ For we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.”