LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund
He deeply believed in democracy. There were American founders who believed in creating this new nation, and they had some ideas, and explored a philosophy with democracy, but their actions show that they didn’t believe in the fullness of American democracy. They were the founders of the country, but not of democracy. They didn’t have the foresight to see John Lewis as a member of Congress, or to even see him as human enough to be able to vote.
John Lewis is one of the forefathers in this country of true democracy, who really internalized and believed in the expansion of the vote, not just for Black people but for all citizens. He believed in equality for all people. The forefathers didn’t believe that. He believed that.
I think he had an acute awareness of the work of young people, and of when young people are [being] marginalized in the movement. He provided a lot of grace and space for young people, which is why one of the last things he did was go out to [Washington, DC’s] Black Lives Matter Plaza. That was a message of “I’m in solidarity with you.” He was able to bridge this political world and this activist world, and understand the evolution of how movements take place.
The last time I saw him was this year in the Selma-Montgomery march [at the Edmund Pettus Bridge]. I didn’t think he was going to come this year, because of his cancer. … As we get to the top of the bridge, I’m standing there, the crowd stops. … He walks up to the crowd, like Moses parting the sea. I’m directly in front of him. I knew that was his last speech. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew.
As an activist, the weeks prior to that had been really tough. … I was really feeling overwhelmed. I’m looking at this man who is literally battling cancer, to actually have the courage, to actually get the strength, and you could tell he was weak. He speaks to us, and it was just what I needed to feel affirmed. Even in that moment, I knew that I couldn’t ever stop this work. There’s a song, “Sweet Honey in the Rock”: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”
Here’s this 80-year-old man who is in Congress, who could literally just go sit at home and do what he wants and just be loved. He knew the importance of that moment, but he also knew the importance of that work. I felt that I, along with millions of others, were knighted. I felt affirmed and knighted in that moment, that our work was necessary.
I think it is not good enough to go back to the place from which we came. We are in a relay. We’ve got to take it forward. There’s a fragility [to] American democracy. … When you ever have your citizens in a place where they can fully participate, fully engage, that’s where you build patriotism. You don’t build patriotism by forcing people to acknowledge a flag that has been a symbol of hatred and racism. You build patriotism by creating the space for American citizens to engage, to be affirmed, and demonstrate their God-given agency.