Well Done, John Lewis. Well Done

Charlayne Hunter-Gault on the contributions and legacy of the congressman and civil rights legend.

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It was people like John Lewis who kept me keeping on at the University of Georgia, especially when I walked alone across the campus and was subjected to jeers and ugly name-calling. Among those times was when the Freedom Riders were in the news, and they thought they were hurting me when they yelled at me and called me "Freedom Rider." Those students had no idea they were conferring on me a badge of honor. And they probably wondered why I was smiling.

The Selma-to-Montgomery March was, as I wrote, "the crowning achievement of the Civil Rights Movement." And within a few months, the reverberations from "Bloody Sunday" would lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which opened the door to the long corridor that led Barack Obama to the White House in 2009, and which President Obama acknowledged in one of his first acts as president when he presented Congressman John Lewis with a commemorative photograph, gratefully inscribed, "Because of you, John."

This past year, I was fortunate to have watched a wonderful episode of Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s Finding Your Roots, in which he traced the DNA history of John Lewis back to his great-grandfather, who was freed from slavery just after the Emancipation Proclamation. I was mesmerized by the journey, not least because it partially explained how John Lewis managed to stand up, even when beaten into the ground.

His great-grandfather's first two acts as a free man were to marry the woman he loved, which slaves couldn't do, and then go and register to vote. I cried as John cried upon hearing this revelation that he had picked up the torch his great-grandfather lit long before he was born. The DNA with a moral compass is surely what helps explain how this great-great-grandson came to succeed in getting, for the black people of the South, the precious tool only briefly enjoyed by his great-great-grandfather and thousands like him.

If chickens could talk -- at least so we humans could understand them -- they would probably have been able to speak glowingly of that voice -- albeit at the time a very young voice of a young man whose very young soul was on fire for freedom, the fire that propelled him forward from that chicken coop to the mountaintop Dr. King spoke of.

And I just know that as I stand today in grateful admiration and appreciation, the countless companions we have lost along the way are smiling down on John and are happy that while he confronted death, he lived to continue the still-elusive fight for freedom, justice and equality for all. And I am honored beyond the words I've spoken today to be here to add my voice on behalf of those who are here and those who are not here to say, as the master who inspired him from an early age would say, "Well done, my good and faithful servant. Well done."

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a regular contributor to The Root, is the author of To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement, published by Roaring Brook Press and the New York Times Co.

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