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Congressman John Lewis Sets Example of Servitude, Passion and Integrity

Congressman Anthony Weiner’s scandal has me thinking about servants of this nation who do walk in integrity. The first name that comes to mind is Congressman John Lewis (D-GA).  He’s a class act with a jaw-droppingly rich history.

Congressman John Lewis’ office on Capitol Hill is a civil rights museum in and of itself.  The walls and shelves are adorned with awards for his bravery demonstrated during the fight for equality for people of color, photographs capturing disturbing as well as triumphant images of the socially and politically charged period, and timeless photo ops of him rubbing elbows with political luminaries at home and abroad.

A tour of his office, conducted by Lewis himself, can be likened to a curator of an art museum delivering intriguing commentary on each piece of artwork, but Lewis is able to provide breathtaking, first-hand accounts. His eyes light up while speaking of the photo of him and Dr. King marching together. He begins to smile when telling the story behind the photo with Nelson Mandela.  The inflections in his voice intensify when talking about the photo of him and then-President Lyndon B. Johnson.

“I’ve been contacted several times by the Smithsonian to house some of this stuff, but it’s so dear to my heart.  It would be hard to let it go,” he said.

Imagine Harriet Tubman describing the darkness and the smell of the Underground Railroad to you or how she organized the effort to ensure its success.  Consider Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. conveying what it was like to stand on the balcony of that Memphis hotel and receive the bullet that forever changed the face of race relations. Ponder Malcolm X speaking on how it felt to be gunned down during his speech, not knowing whether it was friend or foe who pulled the trigger.

Congressman Lewis lived through situations of that caliber, and he’s still here to tell the story.

Congressman Lewis, a Troy, Ala., native, was beaten on numerous occasions, most notably on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on Bloody Sunday in 1965. He was one of the original Freedom Riders and faced the possibility of death with each journey, and he was there as one of the speakers when Dr. King delivered his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech on the Washington Mall. And those are just a few of the numerous stories he can tell.  The passion and courage that it took to take part in such pivotal activities is worthy of the utmost honor. Indeed, President Barack Obama recognized this fact by recently awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom to add to his numerous other honors.

The hardship and pain that then-political activist Lewis endured all those years ago to secure equality for people of color was rewarded with a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, which he has never used for personal gain. That same spirit of servitude that fueled his fire during the movement is well intact today.

“When I think about those days, it brings tears to my eyes. But I did it for the people…I never gave up and never gave in. I got in the way for the sake of America,” he reminisced.

I accompanied Congressman Lewis, his staff and other congresspersons during a return to the state of Alabama to commemorate Bloody Sunday. Despite the traveling Secret Service detail, the command centers set up at each point of his lodging, the otherworldly adoration and gratitude demonstrated wherever he appeared, his humility and air of servitude always shined through.

Congressman Lewis serves the 5th district in Atlanta, Ga., a city that played a huge role in the movement, but he’s a virtual rock star nationally.  He’s part of an elite group that many believe Malcolm X coined as “The Big Six” during that time.  He’s the only surviving member of the group, which included Dr. Martin Luther King, Whitney Young, James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph and Roy Wilkins.  They were all leaders at the time who made pivotal contributions.

“I spoke at the March on Washington and find myself now as the only surviving speaker. That was a wonderful day, and I’ll never forget it,” he said.

Throughout the years, politicians have taken advantage of their offices by allowing their “humanness” to rear its ugly head.  A perfect example is the social-networking scandal that Weiner finds himself embroiled in, and the list can certainly go on and on.  But to the contrary, Lewis, now at 71, has upheld his integrity and honorable code of ethics for 25 years and running on the Hill and at home. He takes the office and his roles as a husband and father that seriously.

It’s an honor to be part of the district that Congressman John Lewis represents and even more of an honor to be able to call him “friend.” –gerald a. radford