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Mary Schmich: John Lewis' funeral was a few hours of hope, away from the doomsday world

Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Op Eds

For a few hours in the middle of the day Thursday, during the funeral of John Lewis, it was possible to hope again.

Inside Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the civil rights legend the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was once the pastor, three former presidents stepped forward, near the flag-draped casket, to praise the U.S. congressman from Georgia. One Republican, two Democrats.

"We live in a better and nobler country today," said the Republican, George W. Bush, "because of John Lewis."

"John Lewis," said Bill Clinton, a Democrat, "was a walking rebuke to people who thought, 'Well, we ain't there yet, we've been working a long time, isn't it time to bag it?' He kept moving."

One after another, the speakers in the sanctuary lauded Lewis: the Black child raised on a farm in the segregated South, the young man who in his youth was beaten and jailed in his nonviolent fight for equal rights, the congressman known for his kindness and his conscience.

Watching the scene inside the church, it was possible to believe that, yes, yes, yes, struggle can bring justice, opponents can reconcile, time can force change and heal wounds.

Outside the church it was a less rosy story.

As I watched the funeral online, I toggled back and forth between Ebenezer and the day's news.

Coronavirus numbers were rising. So were jobless claims.

Out in the Twitter swamp, Donald Trump, the current president, who is trailing in the polls, was floating the wackadoodle idea of postponing the November presidential election, an unconstitutional notion, popular among dictators, that even prominent Republicans rejected.

And not far from Ebenezer, Herman Cain, former presidential candidate and another Black man who rose to success from poverty in the segregated South, had just died, after a struggle with COVID-19. His death may or may not be connected to his appearance at a Trump rally where, like most other Trump supporters, he didn't wear a face mask. Either way, his death was another loss in a catastrophically managed plague.

Eventually, I toggled away from the daily doomsday report and back to the church, where hope was still rising.

"John Lewis," said former President Barack Obama, recalling Lewis' youth, "was getting something inside his head, an idea he couldn't shake, took hold of him, that nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience were the means to change laws, but also change hearts and change minds and change nations and change the world."

Yes. Yes. Here in the church, it was obvious. Change for the good could still come.

 

Lewis's death couldn't have been timed better. It's as if in this moment when the country seems in more dire chaos than we've seen in a long time, his death arrives to show us his life in sharp focus and to sharpen our understanding that this isn't the first time Americans have struggled for equality.

The history lesson on his life came most vividly alive in the speech -- or better to call it a sermon -- of James Lawson.

Half a century ago, Lawson, who's 91, trained Lewis and so many more in the art of nonviolent protest, or, as he instructed the mourners, "satyagraha," a Sanskrit term borrowed from Mahatma Gandhi.

"We do not need bipartisan politics if we're going to celebrate the life of John Lewis," he told the mourners in a rousing voice. "We need the Constitution to come alive. We hold these truths to be self-evident. We need the president and the Congress to work unfalteringly for every boy and every girl so that every baby born on these shores will have access to the tree of life. That's the only way to honor John Robert Lewis. That's the only way."

A funeral is a spectacle. It's theater and words, and it's fleeting. By now, the mourners at John Lewis' funeral -- whether they were inside the church or watching on a screen -- have returned to the world of doomsday news and Twitter, where hope is harder to muster.

But Lewis' homegoing was more than a spectacle. It was a call to action, a battle cry for the next generation.

Obama warned that the causes Lewis fought for -- voting rights, equal opportunity -- were in jeopardy. The best way to honor him, Obama said, would be to pass the voting rights act recently named in his honor.

And the homegoing of John Lewis was more than a history lesson. It made the point that history propels the future. In the name of John Lewis, keep moving.

About The Writer

Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune and winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

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