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In our opinion: Nothing could get John Lewis to compromise his faith or his principles

SHARE In our opinion: Nothing could get John Lewis to compromise his faith or his principles
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In this July 31, 2013, file photo, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., speaks during a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

Nothing could get John Lewis to compromise his principles or to stop walking. Nothing.

Principles and morals are empowered by fidelity in the face of a host of oppositional tactics — brutal violence, hatred and deliberate, spiteful provocations — designed to embitter and distract from a goal.

Lewis, the civil rights hero who died Friday of pancreatic cancer, had an unwavering faith in the power of nonviolent resistance in the face of injustice. He had arguably an even stronger faith in the redemptive power of forgiveness and its ultimate power to change the human heart.

Both were informed by his deeply held religious convictions. From the time he used to preach to chickens as a child pretending to be a minister in rural Alabama until his death, Lewis never loosened his grip on that faith. It was, to him, much stronger than politics, at which he was adept, or any other force. And that faith bore fruit.

Two experiences in his life illustrate the power those convictions have to change the world. 

In 2009, Elwin Wilson traveled to Washington to meet with Lewis, who by then was a respected long-time member of Congress. Wilson was a white man who, in 1961, had been part of a mob of young toughs that beat Lewis and other civil rights protesters who had dared to enter a bus station waiting room designated for whites only. 

A blog post published by Seton Hall University described the encounter this way: 

Wilson asked, “Mr. Lewis, will you forgive me? Do you accept my apology?” He said, “Yes I forgive you, I accept your apology.” 

The man and his son started crying, as did Lewis, who hugged them both. They called Lewis “brother,” and he called them the same.

The other was in 2012, when Lewis attended church in Montgomery, Alabama, and a young police officer was at the podium. The officer turned to him and apologized for how Montgomery police had treated him more than 50 years earlier, severely beating him and other freedom riders. 

Even though the officer hadn’t been born when that incident took place, he noted that new police officers today are required to study what happened that day, as well as what happened in Birmingham and Selma. They must study the lives of civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks, as well as the philosophy of nonviolence. 

The officer then gave his police badge to Lewis, who began to weep.

To be clear, these experiences late in Lewis’ life were made possible only by enormous patience, long-suffering and perseverance of the kind that would make many people run in the opposite direction.

“Bloody Sunday,” when he and other marchers attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in support of voting rights, was just one example. A trooper beat Lewis so severely he cracked his skull and nearly killed him. 

By his own recollection, he was arrested about 40 times in the 1960s, and beaten several times. And yet he kept marching, kept rallying others to his cause and kept true to the principles guiding his life.

Great movements throughout history have been guided by faith in a higher power, something worth remembering during a time of year when holidays also point us toward the American revolution and pioneers.

As The Associated Press noted, Lewis’ life was an example of “activism fueled by religion.”

“I thought I was going to die a few times,” he said in 2004, adding, “I thought I saw death.”

More importantly, he saw life — a different one than what surrounded him much of the time. 

It was that faith, patience, vision and dogged determination that made Lewis a man whose legacy will endure and continue the cause to which he was devoted.