John Lewis’s Body

John Lewis is in a casket covered with a large American flag.  He is laying in state right now in the auditorium of Troy University. John was from Troy, his family owned a hundred ten-acre farm on the edge of the small town. John’s father worked in a lumber mill, now closed, at the edge of town. It was dirty work and his father died young.

When I last visited John at his home in Washington, he lay in bed with a large picture of his mother by his bed side. By then he was mortally ill, and we both knew we might never see each other again. His spirits were high. John’s spirits were always high.

He had an innate optimism about life and the future of this country. When I asked him how African Americans were able to be so long suffering and still seem forgiving, he said he thought it came from the culture of the South and from church. When we talked of the old days in the SNCC he said, “It came from the church, combined with the labor movement, to make a mighty civil rights movement.”

It is strange to me to think of a friend’s body being carried around in a casket. It’s strange to think of their body without life inside it. Alive we cannot separate from our bodies, our soul and body are inextricably entwined. John had a soul within him that was destined for greatness.

When I first saw him sitting in the corner of a small church in Cairo, Illinois he was already famous. I knew that was John Lewis sitting over in the corner. He was a freedom rider.   I had never heard him speak. I only knew of the place he already had in history. I gazed at him with wonder on that morning in Illinois. He was twenty-two years old. He had asked SNCC for ten dollars so he could work in Virginia that summer, but for some reason, Jim Forman had sent him to Cairo.  Then in the church he got up to speak. I had never been in the deep South and I probably had never heard anyone speak from Alabama. Though there might have been as few as fifteen people in the church, his voice exploded across the room with passion. I was transfixed. I would not leave John and I would not leave the movement for another two years.

Fifteen years later John stopped by my home in New Mexico and we sat together at a wooden dining table. In the middle, right in front of John was a single red rose, cut and standing in a vase. “What is that?” asked John.  I said, “It’s a rose John.”

In 1997 I had a show in Atlanta and John came to visit. I was very excited and stepped outside the building to greet him. He was sitting in the driver’s seat of a car. “Notice something?” said John. “No,” I answered. “I’m driving,” he said.  John was fifty-seven and had just learned to drive.

Deathly ill for six months we spoke almost every week and inevitably he would say when he answered the phone, “Danny! How are you? How are you feeling?” and every single time I would think, here this man is dying and every time I call he asks me how I am doing.

For the last few decades you couldn’t really be with John without adoring fans coming up to take a picture, to shake his hand, to touch him and say hello. He liked it and never brushed anyone off, he stopped each time to shake hands and say hello. Who can explain the miracles of this life? John Lewis was a miracle. He was sent to us to change the country and to heal it. His soul has left his body, and his body will be moved from Troy to Montgomery to the Capitol steps so we can all be close to him, to be touched by him, to say hello, and with tears in our eyes, to say good bye.

2 Responses to “John Lewis’s Body”
  1. Beautiful tribute, Danny. I am sorry for your loss. I am sorry for the loss to all of us. RIP John.

  2. c.kelton says:

    Beautifull done, filled will love ..

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