Lewis was a man of kindness and humility who gave students his full attention
By Ward Mailliard
The passing of Congressman John Lewis is a deep loss to our nation and the world. For me, it was also quite personal as our Mount Madonna School students had the honor of interviewing him in Washington, D.C. many times.
One of my favorite moments with the civil rights legend that caught us all by complete surprise took place in 2006. We arrived at our meeting room and got our cameras set up, and waited. A half-hour went by, then an hour. When he arrived, he said, “Sorry I’m running a little late, but I just got out of jail.” That got a surprised laugh from all of us, as he went on to explain, “Seven of us were arrested at the embassy of Sudan today, protesting what is going on there, and trying to sensitize and educate more Americans, the United Nations, and others, to stop the killing, the mass murdering, the raping, and bring a mind to genocide around the world.” That was the best opening line I ever heard at the beginning of an interview — and a superb excuse for being late.
Lewis was a wonderful storyteller. A student asked about his fateful march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. The teen wanted to know what was going through his mind at the moment officers in 1965 fired tear gas, turned attack dogs loose, and then charged to begin beating the marchers? For just a moment you could see a change in his eyes, as he seemed to go inside himself and became quiet. That march was a defining moment in his life, and for our entire nation.
The march, co-led by this brave young man just out of college, was a major turning point of the civil rights movement. For his trouble Lewis suffered a fractured skull, and stepped into history. He said, “I thought I was going to die that day.” It was not the only time John Lewis put his life on the line. As we saw he gave the full measure of his days to the principles of equality and non-violence. The shocking pictures of that brutal attack brought the civil rights struggle home to the American people as nothing else could, much as the video of the recent death of George Floyd. It was so impactful President Lyndon Johnson and Congress were forced to act, leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Each time Lewis met us, he did so with kindness and humility. When we were in the room with him we had his full attention. The students were spellbound, knowing they were meeting a great man; great in his sacrifice, his humility, his perseverance, his commitment, and oh, so great in kindness. We will miss him as an iconic champion of human decency, and as our friend. He embodied the best of what makes us human. My hope is that a little of what transformed this sharecropper’s son into a champion of equality will be carried forward by Mount Madonna students who had the privilege of speaking with him over several decades. It is with sadness and gratitude that we say good-bye.
He said in 2006, “As Dr. King would say, we’re going to learn to live together as brothers and sisters, or we will perish as fools.” I think that even the chickens he always told us he preached to as a boy, would finally have to say, “Amen, John. Amen.”
Mount Madonna School teacher Ward Mailliard created the Values in World Thought social studies program, and has organized the MMS Values learning journeys for more than 30 years. He serves on the board of directors for MMS and for the Sri Ram Foundation.