I don’t take the time these days to let in much emotion. On a day-to-day basis, I feel fine. I am fine. My immediate life is not too visibly touched by the ravages of the coronavirus and Trump’s reign of terror. I worry about others who are more directly in the line of fire, mostly with a sense of numb horror. I channel that horror into a kind of grim determination, signing up for another phone bank, donating again to the food bank or ActBlue. Mostly I maintain an even-keeled numbness, aware of how much energy I put into keeping feelings at bay so as not to get overwhelmed by the grief and rage and despair lapping at the edges.
It’s the exact opposite of how John Lewis lived, and lives on even in death. Beaten almost lifeless countless times; arrested more than 40 times; leading a sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House at age 76 demanding action on gun legislation in the wake of the Orlando massacre; embracing the tens of thousands of young activists pouring into the streets after George Floyd’s murder–John Lewis never succumbed to despair, nor did he stray from the principles of non-violence. The day of his funeral, the New York Times published a piece Lewis wrote just before he died. It’s an homage to today’s protesters and a call to action. It’s a testament to how John Lewis keeps on giving, even in death.
There have been many homages to the civil rights icon himself in the last few days. I read some, heard snippets of others. But I took the time to watch President Obama’s eulogy in full. I needed the piercing of numbness I knew his presence and his words would bring.
Watching President Obama is a heartbreaking balm for the soul in the midst of Trump’s unending and crass malevolence. I, like millions of others, miss him every day. He knows that he would never have gotten where he is without John Lewis. As he delivered the eulogy, he did not mask his grief and anger. Nor did his grief and anger overwhelm his grace and buoyancy of spirit, his ability to lift us up.
Most compelling was his direct linkage to John Lewis’s lifelong work for racial justice and what is happening now, including how often might crushes right. Until it does not. Describing the scene in 1965 Selma, President Obama said, “I imagine initially, that day, the troopers thought they’d won the battle . . . Except this time there were some cameras there. This time Americans saw—bore witness to—black Americans who were asking for nothing more than to be treated like other Americans.”
President Obama helps us see that a nonchalant cop’s knee on George Floyd’s neck is today’s reincarnation of Bull Connor, that federal troops in Lafayette Square and Portland wield the same bloodying batons; and that voter suppression tactics, including sabotaging the post office, echo poll taxes and unpassable tests about how many jelly beans are in a jar. “John Lewis devoted his time on this earth fighting the very attacks on democracy and what’s best in America that we’re seeing circulating right now,” President Obama said. “As long as we have breath in our bodies, we have to continue his cause. Everybody’s gotta come out and vote. . . We can’t treat voting like an errand to run if we have some time.”
And then: “You want to honor John? Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for.”
President Obama concluded by saying that Lewis “could not have been prouder of this new generation. John, these are your children, they learned by your example.
Thank you, John Lewis and President Obama. And thank you to all those now rising up and persevering in the fight for justice, whether grief-stricken, enraged, grim, weary, exuberant, numb, and–dare I say?–hopeful.