Dr. Charles Desmond’s Tribute to John Lewis
Dr. Desmond’s first encounter with John Lewis was at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. At just 18 years old he was one of roughly 250,000 people from across America who gathered at the nation’s capital to attend the infamous march where, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his emotional and prophetic “I Have a Dream” speech. Among other notables who spoke, Desmond recalls that a young, 23-year-old John Lewis delivered a moving and emotional call for racial and economic justice and passage of overdue civil rights legislation.
When asked what made him decide to go he simply said, “Because my sister was.” He noted that at the time his older sister had become involved with issues of civil rights for people of color and that she made him aware of the civil rights movement that was taking shape and gaining momentum across the nation. His choice to attend the march was easy to make, he and his sister boarded a Greyhound bus in Boston and headed to Washington, D.C., not knowing that this journey would result in him being an eyewitness to history; one of the most consequential moments in American democracy. He attributes the march as one of the defining moments in his life, a moment that helped shape his understanding of the civil rights movement and what would be his role in it.
Fast-forwarding roughly 40 years, Desmond finds himself in the presence of Lewis once again; only this time there aren’t hundreds of thousands of people separating them. John Lewis was to receive an honorary doctorate from UMASS Boston, and Desmond had the honor of retrieving him from the airport. Given the opportunity, Desmond expressed his admiration and respect to Lewis and all he has done in his career. “He was a quiet, humble, and gracious man. It was hard to believe someone so understated could have achieved all that he had” are the words that he used to describe Lewis. This meeting rekindled Desmond’s continuing interest in Congressman Lewis, his social justice legacy, and his broader contributions to the civil rights movement. In this context, Desmond has made a special effort in recent years to join Congressman Lewis and thousands of others in annually reenacting the historic Selma to Montgomery march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
The experience of walking the Selma to Montgomery march would have a profound effect on every American who can make the journey. Dr. Desmond says that by periodically returning to that bridge, he is reminded of the powerful influence this action had on our country, and how grateful he is to have experienced it. However, he believes that John Lewis’ work is not yet done. He started a great change for America, but there is still much to accomplish.
Shortly before his death, John Lewis wrote a letter that he asked to be printed on the day of his funeral, in this, his last message; he concludes by saying, “Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.
When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
Another distinguished and influential presence in the civil rights movement, Barack Obama, shared his thoughts on the late civil rights leader with feelings quite similar to Desmond’s; “You want to honor John? Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for.”
As Dr. Charles Desmond says, “Let us heed John Lewis’ advice.”
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