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John Lewis ‘was prepared to die’ for freedom long ago, say friends

As the nation mourns the loss of American hero and Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis, his friends and colleagues remember him as a towering figure who was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for freedom and equality. Special Correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and University of Pennsylvania professor and historian Mary Frances Berry join Hari Sreenivasan to reflect on the enduring legacy of John Lewis.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For more reaction to John Lewis' death and his legacy, I spoke with special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault and University of Pennsylvania professor and historian Mary Frances Berry.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    First, thank you both for joining me. Charlayne, I want to start with you. Given not only your place in the Civil Rights Movement but how long you've known John Lewis, what does his passing mean?

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Well, you know, I said to friends of mine who've been texting me since the word of his passing came out that I hope I could get through this without crying, but what's amazing and I think what keeps me from actually fully shedding too many tears is that John had been preparing for this moment all of his life, especially all of his civil rights life, because when they got ready to leave Washington, D.C. on that challenge to interstate segregation, they wrote their wills and said, we may not make it back. So they, John, has been prepared to transition, as we say, all of his life. He's, he was so strong that even at that young age, he was so dedicated to the proposition of ending segregation and everything, that it meant that he was prepared to die.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Professor Berry. When you look at the arc of John Lewis's life, it's remarkable how many places he shows up in history. I mean, over and over again, here's this figure that's consistently there for me.

  • Mary Frances Berry:

    John Lewis was forever a presence in my life. I remember that. All my whole life. I'm 82 now. All my adult life, John Lewis has been a presence. I'm from Nashville and it was Nashville where he was the American Baptist Seminary and it's Nashville where he and Diane Nash and other people started the national protest, and it's Nashville where my little brother, my youngest brother, who was 12 years old, heard on the radio them talking about it, ran out of school and took all of his classmates with him and ran down to sit in. So he was there then. That American Baptists is is is relevant to all of our lives. Jim Lawson, who taught them about nonviolence right there in Nashville, and after that, even until the present.

    John Lewis from time to time pops up and things that I'm doing, he's doing. We encounter each other, see each other, even in recent years. He became the warrior whose reputation from getting hit over the head down there on the bridge and all the other things that he did could be relied upon in policy discussions to get make the statement or give you the support that people would say, well, okay, if you got John Lewis on your side, I guess maybe we ought to talk about doing that.

    He was principled. He did what he thought he should do, but if he thought somebody else knew more than he did or had more experience than he did, he would listen prayerfully because he was a spiritual guy too. He was practical, but he was spiritual and he was courageous and he was useful to the movement forever because just saying his name, getting his support could be crucial at important times.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    I want to ask you both this question. Charlayne, you first. In the context of what is happening in America today, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the protests after George Floyd, and given how John Lewis perceived this struggle as a lifelong one, how to put that in context for us.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    He saw this as a holy crusade, the fight that John fought didn't end when the civil rights movement and by the way, we have, we had a president then who was a white segregationist and he shocked even John when John and the rest of the civil rights movements activities led to the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act and this white segregationist president stood there and said, 'On this day, with this bill becoming law, we shall overcome.' Now can you imagine that happening today? And maybe it will happen later today? Who knows? But I think what's important is that John knew that this was not an instantaneous thing, that voting rights was very important.

    It's important today because what we see that they fight against voting rights is now on the, on the table and there are efforts to limit many people, including people of color, from voting. So in a sense, that phrase, what goes around, comes around, comes around. And so I think that the fact that so many young people today respect and honor John Lewis also need to be to know that what we need today is a coalition of the generations. Younger people, older people getting together to do the kinds of things that have been done all along that John thought and fought or was so necessary. The Freedom Rides were the first ones to get international attention. We have that today, but what we also need is what John and so many others did once they finished protesting they went down to those communities and worked hard face to face, and now with mask of hope, getting people to register to vote. There's something.

    Lessons learned from John Lewis is the past that are every bit as relevant today. "Make good trouble" and "keep on keeping on." It's what John, I think might say today.

  • Mary Frances Berry:

    Well, I would, I would like to add to that and to say something that's a little contrary. But I have a habit of being contrary. I'm well known for that. John, I think, would want the Black Lives Matter movement to be more focused. One of the things he loved about Martin Luther King is that Martin's mind would organize things and ideas and goals and what it is we're trying to do. He admired that, that sharpness and then one of the things that he learned in a life in politics was that if you want something, you have to pick what you want and then figure out a strategy to get there.

    And I think he would find that he'd like the Black Lives Matter and did movement because it's nonviolent, and it's a protest movement and we know that nonviolent protest is an essential ingredient of politics. You know, he knew that he lived by that, but he would also worry about whether the movement would accomplish anything because he would be worried about the diffuse nature of it and whether it could persist and flow and also, while he would urge people to vote and certainly he did and he was a politician, he wanted them to vote for him and other people like him if he could.

    He believed that you have to do more than vote. You have to be involved in protest. You have to be involved in holding people accountable, that otherwise you're not going to get anything done. That was his history. He knew that as a matter of history, and he knew that as a matter reality. So I think that if he were giving a message over and over again to the Black Lives Matter movement and to the people of this country who want change and who want justice, that's the message you get.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    I mean, I just even more recently, it was just a few years ago after the Pulse nightclub shootings that he had that sit in in in Congress. He wasn't done. I mean, it was it was just remarkable to think that even at his age, he was corralling members of Congress to organize and protest.

    What is the thing that you're going to remember about him most, Charlayne?

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Well, you know, John was undeterred by any obstacle. He just kept on keeping on because he believed, as Martin Luther King did, that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice and he was prepared, willing and able to walk that moral arc from all those places where he took the first blow for freedom as he got off a bus and got knocked down and got knocked unconscious, but he kept on walking.

    And I think that's his legacy. John is one of the pioneers in our struggle to make America be what it can be and that is a place that he, John and Martin Luther King and all of the rest that we said is the place where you will be judged not by the color of your skin—because remember, the movement was interracial and white people died for us just as Black people did. So this country must follow this notion that, well, this principle that, we must all be judged not by the color of our skins, but by the content of our character. That is the message I think that John is I think he's sending it to me right now.

  • Mary Frances Berry:

    And I certainly hope that the day will come when that will be true with all of us, but I think what I remember about him. I remember a lot, but the main thing that sticks in my mind always is that he has principled. He never gave up on his principles. He found a way. He was like the 'Energizer Bunny'. He just kept going and going and going. I'd see him just going and going and going and always sticking to his principles.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Professor Mary Frances Berry and Charlayne Hunter-Gault, thank you both.

  • Mary Frances Berry:

    Thank you.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Thank you. Great to be with you.

  • Mary Frances Berry:

    Yes.

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