The late Rep. John Lewis called for Americans to “answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe” in an essay published by The New York Times on the day of his funeral.
The late congressman’s words were sent to the newspaper two days before his death to be published Thursday, the day of his funeral. Lewis, a mantle of the civil rights movement, said he was inspired in his last days by social justice reform and activism that has swept the county in the aftermath of police killings of Black Americans.
“You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society,” he wrote. “Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.”
Lewis continued, “Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor,” adding he was 15 years old at the time of Till’s brutal death. “I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me. In those days, fear constrained us like an imaginary prison, and troubling thoughts of potential brutality committed for no understandable reason were the bars.”
Born in Troy, Alabama, and the son of sharecroppers, Lewis began civil rights activism at a young age. He helped lead a march for voting rights on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, at age 25. On the that day, which became known as “Bloody Sunday,” he and other marchers were brutally attacked by police who fractured his skull. Images from that day shocked the nation and galvanized support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. He was also arrested more than 40 times during his activism days.
He passed away earlier this month at age 80 after a six-month battle with cancer.
In June, Lewis visited the newly named Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC, which he called “a powerful work of art” and wrote in the essay that although he was admitted to the hospital a day after the visit, “I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on.”
He wrote that when he was young, like other young people he “was searching for a way out, or some might say a way in” until he heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice on the radio. Reflecting on King’s calls to not tolerate injustice, Lewis said, “When you see something that is not right, you must say something.”
“You must do something,” he wrote. “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”
He also said, “Voting and participating in the democratic process are key,” adding that it is “the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society” and for everyone to “use it.”
At the end of the essay, Lewis called for everyone to “continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others. And echoing the words of King, he said now it’s America’s turn to “let freedom ring.”
“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe,” he wrote. “In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”
“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”