Skip to main content

John Lewis: A personal tribute to a legend, who tried to emulate Mahatma Gandhi

Cedric Prakash with John Lewis
By Fr Cedric Prakash SJ*
John Lewis is no more and the world will miss him! When he died on July 17, 2020, he left a great void which will never be filled! He was one of a kind who roamed this earth, impacted on the lives of many and has left us all a rich and unforgettable legacy. He was truly a wonderful human and a great hero! Beginning Saturday, July 25, his funeral ceremonies lasting for full six days began – until his burial on Thursday, July 30.
Ever since he died, rich and glowing tributes have been pouring in from every corner of the world; editorials and op-eds have been written on him: all remember and highlight the many causes he espoused and championed as a civil rights leader. The Congressional Black Caucus in a statement said.
“The world has lost a legend; the civil rights movement has lost an icon.” John fought against against every form of discrimination and divisiveness: be it racism, casteism and attacks on the minorities in India. His convictions and stand for justice -were always based on nonviolence, peace and unity.
Much is being written about John Lewis. He was truly someone who contributed in many in promoting and protecting all that is right and just. Many of the eulogies that are written are by people who knew him at close quarters: were connected with him, worked with him or for that were able to follow him at least a good part of his eighty years. I make no claim to belong to any of these special groups.
I have had, however, the joy and privilege of meeting with him on three different occasions: once in Ahmedabad and on two different occasions in Washington DC; two of these meetings were very brief but one lasted for almost a couple of hours!
Ever since I heard of the death of John Lewis, I have been revisiting my meetings with him and feel it is important to put down some of my personal glimpses of this great soul, as a small way of paying my tribute to him, these include:

John Lewis was very human

I cherish my meetings with him; he gave me value time; he was such a warm, affable, available and unassuming person despite the power he had and the influence he could wield! He was definitely a busy person, but when I spoke, he gave me his total undivided attention, listening intently!
His questions were based on what I had said; areas which needed more clarification or substantiation. Right from the word ‘go’ one felt that he trusted you; believed in what you were saying , was on the same page as you were and was determined to do all he could to address the concern.

John Lewis was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi

There has never been any doubt about this: he was convinced of the non-violent approach of Mahatma Gandhi. I first met John in the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad; he was accompanying Martin Luther King III (the son of MLK Jr). “I have always wanted to come here; to experience the sacredness of this place”, he said to me.
In one of my visits to his office in the Capitol, he insisted that his political assistant takes a picture of the two of us, in front of the displayed photos of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr which adorned his shelves. 
It is a vintage picture which I will always treasure. In December 2019, to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, John Lewis introduced a Bill (HR 5517) in the US House of Representatives that aimed to promote the legacy and contributions of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
Through the bill, he hoped to affirm the friendships of the two largest democracies of the world: India and the US and establish a bilateral partnership, “for collaboration to advance development and shared values, and for other purposes”. He had earlier proposed a similar bill, called the “Gandhi-King Scholarly Exchange Initiative Act of 2011”, which aimed to use peaceful and non-violent methods for global conflict resolution.

John Lewis took a stand against injustice and for freedom

He was always concerned against any injustice, any discrimination that took place anywhere. His public fight against injustice began in the summer of 1961, when he and other students protested at segregated lunch counters and later joined the famous Freedom Rides.
By his early twenties, Lewis was head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In March 1963, he joined Martin Luther King and others at the ‘March on Washington’. He elevated his fight for freedom and equality with a passionate speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial’. He spoke on voting rights and the future of the Democratic Party.
His speech was brief, lasting less than eight minutes, but his words influenced a generation of activists. “To those who have said, 'Be patient and wait,' " he said, "we must say that we must not be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now." His own resolve for justice and freedom was tested, as he and other peaceful protesters were violently beaten in 1965 while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
He never looked back since then! He was anguished and angry at was happening to the minorities (particularly to the Christians and Muslims), the Dalits, the Adivasis and other vulnerable groups, in India, particularly since 2002. He never hesitated in sponsoring any Congressional resolution or endorsing any Congressional statement to address these matters.

John Lewis loved Mother Teresa

He simply loved Mother Teresa; her love for the poor; the peace and joy which she radiated. On 29 December 1975, "Time" magazine brought out a special issue entitled ‘Living Saints’ (Messengers of Love and Hope). 
Mother Teresa was on the Cover Page and figured prominently in the detailed cover story, ‘Saints Among Us: The Work of Mother Teresa’. The story, however, was not only about Mother Teresa but also about other ‘living saints’ who were making their mark on society with the much needed love and hope.
I first met John in the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, accompanied by Martin Luther King III (son of MLK Jr), to experience the sacredness of this place
This is what "Time" magazine said almost 45 years ago: 
“The US has its own civil rights heroes. John Lewis, 35, the young apostle of nonviolence in the '60s, was arrested more than 40 times in civil rights demonstrations, and his skull was fractured at Selma in 1965. Since 1970 he has headed the Voter Education Project in Atlanta and helped register some 3.5 million blacks.
"As a Baptist seminarian, Lewis was kidded for talking up the Social Gospel, but he insists that some "immutable principles" must be at the base of the 'Beloved Society' he envisions, and nonviolence is one of them. If a compassionate world is the end, he argues, "then the means we use must be consistent with it." John was the youngest of the ‘living saints’ who found a place in the article. No small achievement!"
I had never seen that issue of "Time" magazine; but in one of my meetings with him, in a very bashful manner he took out a copy of that issue and showed it to me. “You know Father, he said, one of the happiest moments of my life was to be honoured in the same article which featured Mother Teresa. I know that I am not deserving of that ‘title’ but it has spurred me all these years to love the poorest of the poor just as she did!”
Today I believe that John is with Mother Teresa in heaven celebrating their sainthood together there!

John Lewis admired Pope Francis

He genuinely admired Pope Francis. In September 2015, Pope Francis gave a historic speech to a joint session of the US Congress in Washington. That speech touched the hearts of many who were listening; many were teary-eyed. He returned to his Office and released a powerful statement which went viral and was covered extensively by the mainstream media. He wrote:
"The Holy Father, Pope Francis of the Holy See, delivered a powerful message to Congress and the American people today. In his humble, gentle way he used his authority to encourage us all to simply do what is right to protect the dignity of all humankind.
"All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity.... Politics is... an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good..." 

"These words and ideas speak to the center of our work as members of Congress and to the importance and vitality of our roles as individual citizens. Pope Francis delivered one of the most moving speeches I have ever heard in all my years in Congress. I loved the way he used the life and work of President Abraham Lincoln, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton as the basis of his lesson for all of us." 
Though I was reluctant to openly shed tears, I cried within to hear his words. I was deeply moved to realize I had a connection in some way with some of those he mentioned. When "Time" magazine, years ago, did a story on "living saints," they actually included Dorothy Day and I in the story.
Also Thomas Merton was a monk whose words I studied during non-violence training in the Civil Rights Movement. It was amazing that the Pope mentioned the Selma-to-Montgomery march because during the first attempt to march to Montgomery, now known as Bloody Sunday, I carried one of Thomas Merton's books in my backpack:
"Pope Francis spoke to the heart and soul of Congress and America. It is my hope and prayer that members of Congress will heed his simple call to respect the dignity and divinity of every human being then we would be better servants of the American people, this would be a better country, and a better world.” 
It was a direct ‘release’ from the heart of John: he meant every word! A genuine outburst!
In his lifetime, John tried to emulate MLK Jr, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Pope Francis. He has left us at a crucial and critical time of our lives. The only real tribute we can pay this great soul is to have the courage to try to live concretely and substantially the rich legacy he has left us: by taking a stand against every form of discrimination and injustice around us!
Rest in peace Dear John! The world will miss you! We are poorer without you!
---
*Human rights and peace activist/writer

Comments

TRENDING

Buddhist shrines were 'massively destroyed' by Brahmanical rulers: Historian DN Jha

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Examples of support to Hindu temples, scriptures, saints by 'Muslim' rulers galore

Siya Ram coin issued by Akbar By Bharat Dogra* At a time when the country as well as the world are passing through very difficult times leading to more urgent need for strengthening national unity for meeting several big challenges ahead, unfortunately disputes relating to religious places have been allowed to raise their ugly head once again. It is well-realized by now by many people that it is not historical facts but narrow considerations of political gain and spreading of fanatic ideas of intolerance which are behind such mischief, but due to the increasing threat of mob violence and patronage available at higher levels to groups spreading intolerance many people are reluctant to openly and fearlessly express their views. Hence there is urgent need for broad-based peace committees with wider social support to spread the message of communal harmony and to appeal against the dangers of spreading false messages regarding places of worship which can ultimate

Gyanvapi case: Use of 'illegal' lawfare to keep the communal pot simmering

By Venkatesh Narayanan, Bobby Ramakant, Manoj Sarang* With a steady drumbeat of bad news for the lives of ordinary citizens --  inflation at a multi-year high , rupee at an all-time low , negative job creation and when all forward indicators as seen by industry leaders point to recessionary clouds on the horizon , what’s a serially-incompetent government to do?  Dust out their time-tested-citizen-distraction playbook. The Gyanvapi-Masjid case is all of this -- as a weapon of mass distraction. This zeitgeist of our times is best captured by a recent opinion piece : "The idea is to keep the pot on a perpetual boil, simmering at the top, whirling feverishly beneath. A restless society forever living precariously on the precipice arouses distrst, uneasiness, fear and discomfort, That is a toxic panoply for manufacturing rage, which can then be effortlessly mobilized at short notice. BJP is creating an eco-system of real-time instant delivery of hate-mongers. That is how we are sudde

Targeting mosques, churches: 'Roadmap' for 2025, RSS' centenary year?

416 years old Our Lady of Health Church, Sancoale, Goa  By Fr Cedric Prakash SJ*  Fascists use manipulative strategies aimed at whipping up sympathy and support from the majority community, to which they normally ‘belong’. They do so in a variety of insidious and subtle ways. In the past few months, they have gone overboard in their efforts to denigrate and demonize minorities in India, particularly Muslims and Christians. They have spewed hate and divisiveness through their venomous speeches; incited people to violence and have effectively used officialdom to further their vested interests. The results are there for all to see: greater polarisation of the majority community in a country which prided itself for its pluralism and diversity. Their meticulously planned agenda is in order to gain absolute power of the country in the 2024 national elections. More so it is also a roadmap towards 2025 when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) will complete one hundred years of its existence.

This varsity succumbed to extra-academic mobocracy, 'ignored' Hindutva archives

By Shamsul Islam* Open letter to Sharda University vice-chancellor Sub: Discarding a Question on Linkages of Hindutva with Nazism/Fascism is blatant Academic Dishonesty! Dear Professor Sibaram Khara Saheb, Namaskaar! According to your esteemed University’s portal: “The name of University, 'Sharda' is synonymous to 'Goddess of knowledge and learning-Saraswati'. She is identified with 'veena', an Indian musical instrument and the ‘lotus’, where she resides. The lotus in our logo symbolizes the seat of learning that the University is created for.  "Variety of colours signify the variety of disciplines the university offers and the overlap between petals creating new colours demonstrate the ethos of collaboration between students and teachers of different programme, nationality, creed and colour working towards creating new knowledge…the University's cherished mission to provide education beyond boundaries and to facilitate the students and faculty to achie

Whither climate goal? Increasing reliance on coal 'likely to worsen' India's power crisis

By Shankar Sharma*  Recent news articles, How to shock-proof India’s power sector and Power minister points finger at states for worsening electricity crisis , have highlighted a few current problems for the ongoing power sector issues as in April 2022. However, there is a lot more to it than a few temporary solutions as indicated in the articles. It should also be emphasised that it is techno-economically impossible to completely shock-proof a highly complex and geographically wide-spread vast power network, such as the one in India, which is only getting more and more complex with the passage of each year due to some irrational policies/ practices in the sector. A business-as-usual (BAU) scenario, wherein more and more of conventional technology power plants, including coal power plants, will be added in the near future, will also necessitate the increased complexity in the integrated national grid, and as a result the instances of power shortage/ disruptions can only escalate for

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.

A former Modi ally, Prashant Kishor wanted to enter Congress 'on contract, as trader'

By Anand Sahay*  The Congress Party and the election campaigns specialist Prashant Kishor, whose company has done strategic communications for a host of political parties across ideology, should both count themselves lucky that they could not reach an agreement for Kishor to join the party. News reports suggest that the Congress rejected Kishor’s terms. This is not wholly unexpected. People join a party because they are attracted to it, and wish to serve it in any capacity that the party may see fit. But that isn’t Kishor at all. He gave the impression of entering into a contract, as a trader might. If news reports are to be believed, he sought freedom to report directly to party chief Sonia Gandhi, and sought untrammeled control over party communications. When such ideas did not find favour, the consultant withdrew. It is clear he has no particular love for the Congress, and its ideas, ideology and politics. In contrast, look at the key personae in G-23. They

Govt of India 'compromising' on mandate to regulate gene technologies, protect nature

Counterview Desk  In a letter sent to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and other related ministries and departments, the Coalition for a GM-Free India has raised "serious concern" over the guidelines notified for Genome Edited Organisms, in which major exemptions from regulations have been offered to certain categories of Genome Edited Organisms/Plants and products. A letter signed by Sridhar Radhakrishnan and Kapil Shah, co-convenors of the NGO network, addressed to Union Minister for Environment, Forest & Climate Change Bhupender Yadav, said, the Office Memorandum, dated May 17, 2022 of the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science & Technology about Safety Assessment Guidelines, which follows the Office Memorandum dated March 30, 2022 of the MoEFCC, said, the move "essentially amounts to entry of risky GMOs through the backdoor. Text : Coalition for a  GM-Free India is a national volunteer-driven platform of hundre

A Marxian trend that queries undemocratic customs and traditions of capitalism

By Bhabani Shankar Nayak*  A very well-meaning comrade called me a pluriversal Marxist with a wild smile full of English irony, while chairing my book release function in the Marx Memorial Library, London. I dedicate this piece to her… There is no other philosopher who is more abused and misunderstood like Marx. There is no other philosophy like Marxism which is more demonised on a regular basis. The mindless vilification campaign against Marx and Marxism continues without any form of reason. The propaganda and portrayal of Marxism as a devilish doctrine signify its importance as a philosophy of human emancipation from the very forces who demonise it. Marxism is a philosophy of praxis which helps us to understand the centrality of creative power of labour in producing socially meaningful value. It helps us to analyse the laws governing production, distribution, consumption, exchange, market, profit, pricing and private property in the development of class-based society. As a humanist p