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Remembering John Lewis

John Lewis made his final journey to the Capitol earlier this week. John was a hero for me, like he was for so many others across our nation. I knew of him before I met him, learned about him and his role in the civil rights protests in the South as part of my own education as an activist and organizer. 

When I was leading the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride across the country in 2003, we stopped in Washington, D.C. to pick up John on the way to our final rally at the World’s Fair site in New York. A few speakers before me at the event was the remarkable John Lewis. He thundered his message, as he so often did, about immigrant rights as civil rights. He was generous and inclusive of the civil rights struggles of immigrants and gave context to the history of struggle. When he came off the stage, he hugged me and thanked me for being part of the struggle. But it was I who was ever indebted to him.  

A decade later, in 2013, as the Co-Chair of the national We Belong Together campaign for women and immigration reform, I helped organize one of the largest civil disobedience protests of women. More than 100 of us blocked the street to the capitol by sitting in a giant circle. Together, we were generations of women with the strength and courage of 25 undocumented women who could face the most serious of consequences for their powerful participation. John came and got arrested with us to help lift up our protests.

And then in 2016, after my election, I got to meet John again—this time as a colleague in the United States House of Representatives. He was so kind, generous and humble. But make no mistake, he was also fierce. Both he and the late, great Elijah Cummings constantly encouraged me to continue speaking out about the horrors of family separation and to never stop organizing. 

John would say to me over and over again on the floor when I saw him, “what can I do? How can I help?” When several of us members of Congress decided we would get arrested together, we asked John if he would lead the protest with us. He immediately said yes, and we took to the streets with John Lewis in the center. His presence gave moral certitude to the issue. Of course, with John Lewis in our midst, the police officers refused to arrest us, no matter how long we stayed out there. We blocked the entrance to the Department of Homeland Security, no arrest.  We took to the streets and blocked roads, no arrest. We joked with John and said that he would have to leave for us to get arrested.

Ultimately, John taught me so much about how to be in the world, how to fight with ferocity but also gentleness. He taught me that anger is necessary, but we have to learn to put it to use to make the change we want to see—the change we need to see. We need to meet violence with non-violence. John would always say, “Never stop fighting. When you see something wrong, you have to call it out. Never give up, and never give in.”  

That’s what he did his entire life—and in doing so, he gave hope, wisdom, lessons, and grace to our moral quest for justice. John Lewis, rest in power. You did so much with your life, we thank you, and we will never give up and never give in.

This note was authored by U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal (WA-07) on Tuesday, July 28, 2020 as she reflected on the life and legacy of the honorable John Lewis.