Rep. John Lewis: All Respect
2019 got one final kick in Sunday with the news that Rep. John Lewis has Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. This disease is the same one that killed Patrick Swayze, Aretha Franklin, Bill Hicks, Alan Rickman, Sally Ride, Michael Landon, Count Basie, Donna Reed and too many others. Pancreatic cancer is brutal, aggressive, and its prognosis is grim: The average patient lives just a year. However, Lewis responded publicly to the craptastic diagnosis with his usual grace and inspirational outlook.
LEWIS: While I am clear-eyed about the prognosis, doctors have told me that recent medical advances have made this type of cancer treatable in many cases, that treatment options are no longer as debilitating as they once were, and that I have a fighting chance.
So I have decided to do what I know to do and do what I have always done: I am going to fight it and keep fighting for the Beloved Community. We still have many bridges to cross.
Lewis famously crossed Selma, Alabama's Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 as part of a peaceful march for voting rights. The armed police officers standing in their way didn't receive the "peaceful march" memo. They viciously beat hundreds of civil rights activists on what would become known as Bloody Sunday. Lewis himself suffered a fractured skull because of his aggravated pedestrian offenses. He continually put his body on the line in the fight for the freedoms black people enjoy today. He was an original Freedom Rider, and segregationists attacked him for daring to sit in seats "reserved" for white people. He helped organize the March on Washington in 1963. He was arrested more than 40 times during the civil rights era. Lewis firmly believes that when confronting injustice, you should "find a way to get in the way."
Lewis has served with distinction in the House since 1987. He proudly represents Georgia's Fifth Congressional District, which is majority black and includes most of Atlanta. But we're not writing an obituary today. The time will come when we'll properly eulogize the Civil Rights leader and celebrate his many hard fought victories. As Barnabas Collins said, "Death runs faster than any man." John Lewis has never run from any foe, and just as he confronted hatred and prejudice, he will face down mortality. There might be sadness in his loss, but the life he has lived is a victory his death will never erase. The tributes and heartfelt statements already pouring in are a testament to this.
I do wish that while Lewis is still alive, we can all get off our asses and finally rename the damn Edmund Pettus Bridge. Edmund Winston Pettus was a Confederate general and a grand dragon in the Alabama Klu Klux Klan. Lewis worked hard to defeat the racial order that Pettus desired, and that defeat should be total. No one should know his name unless they're seeing it in front of them while evacuating their bowels. The bridge in Selma rightly belongs to the brave people who crossed it on Bloody Sunday. I can think of no better or more appropriate tribute than rechristening the bridge after John Lewis.
Lewis plans to return to DC and continue getting in "good trouble" while fighting his disease with the same conviction he's demonstrated throughout his life. Regardless of the outcome, we can appreciate right now that we exist on the same earth as this legend.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He's on the board of the Portland Playhouse theater and writes for the immersive theater Cafe Nordo in Seattle.