NORTH JERSEY — Congressman Josh Gottheimer, the U.S. Representative of New Jersey's fifth congressional district, recalled his final encounter with John Lewis with fond nostalgia: a warm embrace.
Congressman Lewis, lauded civil rights leader and the U.S. Representative for Georgia’s fifth congressional district for 33 years, lost his battle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer on July 17 at 80 years old. One of the leaders of the “Big Six” groups who organized the 1963 March on Washington made it part of his life’s mission to end legalized racial segregation in the United States. Gottheimer remembers the winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom as someone who "never grew weary, regardless of the fight, even in the face of cancer.”
"John Lewis was on the battlefield of nearly every civil rights fight of the last century,” said Gottheimer in a statement. "Through it all, regardless of what they did to him, John always walked gracefully with the wind, following the words of Isaiah, 'They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.'”
Lewis had fought valiantly on the front lines to end Jim Crow laws (state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the South) to the point of suffering through beatings — all in the name of fighting systemic racism. His shocking beating at "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965 led to the immediate passage of the Voting Rights Act that year.
"John once said, 'If you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something about it.’ We all need to remember that,” said Gottheimer. "I know that I will.”
According to The New York Times, the large demonstrations that sparked across the nation following George Floyd’s tragic passing on Memorial Day at the hands of Derek Chauvin, an ex white police officer with the Minneapolis Police Department who is now facing second-degree murder and manslaughter chargers, were what Lewis viewed an extension of his work to end systemic racism and demand justice for black lives. Though too ill to participate, he still watched from the comfort of his home as communities across the nation came together this summer in the blazing heat to fight for the rights of people of color.
In June, Lewis told CBS This Morning that the tens of thousands of demonstrators attending the string of protests were “very moving” and typified a new movement carrying enough power that will result in “no turning back.”
Despite Lewis' passing, Gottheimer said the legend’s presence will "always loom large over the House and our great nation” and his legacy will live on in his final words of wisdom he whispered to his old friend.
"I’ll never forget the last hug he gave me, when I told him how much he meant to me, how much I appreciated his counsel, and all he did for me,” recalled Gottheimer. “He whispered back, 'Just stay strong, my brother.’"