Paying respects to Rep. John Lewis of blessed memory

Robert A. Cohn


The American Jewish community, like the rest of the nation, has lost a dear friend and an authentic hero in the recent passing of Rep. John Robert Lewis. The Georgia Democrat, who began life as the son of sharecroppers and became a towering figure in the civil rights movement and American politics, lost the last of his many battles with stage 4 pancreatic cancer last Friday at the age of 80.

It is impossible to discuss Lewis and his historic role without resorting to such terms as biblical, iconic, inspirational and authentic, because he was all of the above and so much more. At 23, he was the youngest speaker at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic 1963 March on Washington, when he was often described as “a young firebrand.” Indeed, he was, and he remained a firebrand for his eight decades of a life very well lived. Like King, Lewis never lost his gift for soaring rhetoric.

But his actions spoke much louder than mere words. He proudly rubbed the scar from the fractured skull he suffered at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965. In his memoir, Lewis recalled his admiration and appreciation for Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said the marchers were “voting with their feet.” 

The Jewish community of Atlanta was deeply saddened over the passing of Rep. Lewis. Sherry Frank told Atlanta media that the Jewish community could “always count on” Lewis as an ally on issues of social justice. Frank, an Atlanta Jewish activist, was a co-founder with Lewis of that city’s Black-Jewish Dialogue group. 

In the course of his long career, Lewis supported a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and opposed the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, but he made no secret of his negative opinion of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He refused to attend Bibi’s speech to Congress that he thought disrespected the policies of then President Barack Obama. This disagreement does not diminish Lewis’ long positive ties to the Jewish community. 

Lewis received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Obama, who credits Lewis for paving the way for Obama to be elected the first Black president of the United States. 

To that and many other accolades earned by Lewis can be added mensch, a decent, compassionate and forgiving human being. 

His staff was proud that Lewis forgave a tearful former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, who came to his office in an act of contrition.  How we miss such qualities in today’s bitterly divided America. Lewis would rather build bridges than burn them down. 

The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma is named after a Confederate officer and U.S. senator who was a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. It should promptly be renamed the John Robert Lewis Bridge with strong bipartisan support.

John Lewis, may you find perfect rest in the shadow of God’s wings. Your memory will continue to inspire the demand for justice, and that will be its blessing.

Robert A. Cohn is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light.