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Two Roads Diverged: A Tribute to the Life and Legacy of John Lewis

True character is effectively tested when no one is watching, and many conclude that your conscience is the primary vehicle that drives all decision-making processes in humans. Your conscience requires the apprehension of basic social rules and the volitional intent to do well unto your peers.

Furthermore, your conscience requires a strong moral compass derived from genuine empathy towards others in order to use. Humans, like our genetic ancestors, were forced to cooperate to survive and this impacts our conscience to this day. Recent studies show that kids, unlike chimpanzees, will often take the route of teamwork to maximize their reward compared to working alone and getting just enough to survive. As we head into the next decade, we must conscientiously reflect on our daily encounters with others to improve upon the burden of the bad habits we’ve socially developed.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis was known by his fellow colleagues in the capital as the “conscience of the U.S. Congress”, which may be one of the more accurate nicknames I have heard in some time. Not only is this accurate, but rather impressive considering many including myself question if other members of congress even have a conscience. John Lewis, a man of strong faith, was drawn to Martin Luther King Jr. by listening to his sermons over the radio.

His faith in God, but also King, encouraged him to serve as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, while attending college, and advocate for peaceful, nonviolent protests. At 23 years old, he was an organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, and a few years later the face of the Selma-Montgomery March in 1965. After spending five years highlighting racial injustice, leading countless protests, enduring vitriolic racist remarks, and surviving police-sponsored beatings, Lewis’ efforts contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, a landmark federal achievement in the Civil Rights Movement.

Skip forward 55 years and not much has changed, rather one can say it’s worse. A key fact I left out above, was that the Voting Rights Act was passed eight days after John Lewis was beaten until his skull was fractured in Selma. Lewis wrote in his memoirs: “The American public had already seen so much of this sort of thing, countless images of beatings and dogs and cursing and hoses. But something about that day in Selma touched a nerve deeper than anything that had come before.” On May 25, 2020 George Floyd was murdered in a way that puts many of the world’s most cynical to shame. The days that have ensued since then have been inspirational, and hopefully restored some faith for Lewis in Lewis’ final days. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time a person of color was killed inhumanely, but hopefully this will be an impact moment that sets us on a new trajectory.

Two roads diverged, and the individual's personal responsibility will make all the difference. Outside of the courage and justice he maintained, Lewis' life also served as a lesson in the fierce urgency of now. When Lewis looks down from heaven in 2021, my only hope is that his glance is one of hope, serenity, and closure. Equity for all gets closer everyday, but the marker can only be pushed along when the battle is viewed as a constant siege. When looking at the world from 40,000 feet this siege can go one of two ways.

  1. We push on with protests, informative social media, and promote an emphasis on black culture all the way through November and well past the next presidency. Closer to November there is a push to inform all Americans that inequality is rampant on all levels and this is a common fight. After a united front is made we push that all culture is valuable and that even includes the southern way or the average farmer. With the aforementioned front we push for reparations for African Americans if we can only agree on a few, such as a progressive scaled tax inflow for schools that are largely made up of minorities. In a few years through legislation, rapidly changing social norms, and an informed society we finally reach a phase of equity for all.

  2. We push on with protests, informative social media, and promote an emphasis on black culture all the way through November UNTIL the next presidency. We let the fight die out like many of the recent movements that have started. Even though some have been much more oppressed than others, we dissociate others and tarnish true justice. We take bribes like changing names, or removing flags as a victory for the whole war rather than a small skirmish. Finally, we lose hope and faith in ourselves, in our government, and in God and rout as a unit back to where we started 2020.

In his last moments, John Lewis appeared to be proud, but certainly not content. Lewis, as well as the modern American youth, witnessed all races take up the fight against injustice. Public forums and open discussions lead to solutions getting bounced off the walls of our social media platforms. Certainly, America’s next steps lie in making the right decision in this upcoming pivotal election, which will either set this planet back, possibly indefinitely, or amend some degree of past wrongs to forge a more habitable path forward for all, but the future remains uncertain.

A leader with courage similar to Lewis may hopefully emerge, but thankfully with heroes like Lewis and the civil rights leaders of the past, this isn’t a necessity. If we all strive to replicate Lewis’ life, then the change many of us desire is inevitable. When I think of myself, I think about how I am the same age that Lewis was when he ramped up his nonviolent action, which prompts me to reflect on specific traits I need to improve upon to get there. There’s many, but some that come to my mind are: unifying all walks of human life, maintaining the utmost faith and hope, and to love and forgive all.

John Lewis was an anomaly, his commitment to social justice and love above all else till his death has no playbook in the social guidelines of life and is complicated to replicate. Getting arrested well into your 70s for peacefully protesting, or forgiving your KKK assailant 50 years after the fact is not in everybody’s journey, but that is not an excuse for not trying to follow his path. Furthermore, although the path will be deep in the undergrowth and needs to be trodden, this path needs to be taken by the majority if we are to approach the next needed crossroad. When the path gets tough this year or the next, whether dealing with horrors of undercover federal agents, or combatting the terrors of depression, think of John Lewis and recall his faith.

Not everyone will be blessed with the religious conviction Lewis held but above all we must emulate his faith through extended gratitude and empathy towards fellow human beings, and when the day comes forgive, especially yourself.

Excerpt from “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

“I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a broken America, and we--

We took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

John Lewis quote on never giving up (posted on Twitter, July 16, 2019)

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way.”

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