Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
I first met John Lewis when I was in junior high school. He was one of the many civil rights leaders who regularly visited our small Presbyterian church in Washington, D.C., including Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, Bayard Rustin, Stokely Carmichael and James Farmer. John and the other leaders would spend quality time with us over lemonade in the fellowship hall, answering all our questions and sharing their experiences and dreams. Why? Because they knew how important it was to invest in young people. Those dynamic leaders taking the time to meet with us profoundly affected me.
Fast forward to the adult version of me: I was reintroduced to John Lewis by his wife, Lillian. I worked on his campaigns for Atlanta City Council as well as for Congress. He cared about the things I cared about, so anything I could do to help him get elected was all the motivation I needed. He became a friend.
The year after John Lewis was elected to Congress, we relocated to Washington, D.C., and I called him. I wanted to come by and see his new office. We met, and he offered me a job — to be his administrative assistant.
At that point in my career, I was a fairly accomplished lawyer and law professor, and I had a couple of advanced degrees. I assumed the administrative assistant was the person who scheduled meetings, drafted letters, paid bills, organized the office, etc. That was OK with me so long as I could help Congressman Lewis “change the world.” So, I took the job!
Little did I know that the administrative assistant to a member of Congress was the chief of staff.
I never could have imagined when I was in junior high school that I would spend a large part of my career helping one of the most honest, hardworking, unassuming, optimistic, focused, humble, energetic, gracious and kindest human beings on the planet make a difference in the lives of so many.
Back in the day, we wrote letters to 800 constituents each week informing them of federal policies and proposed changes in laws that affected them, government resources that were available, what their representative in Congress was doing and inviting constituent engagement. John signed each one of those letters, and the staff addressed and stamped each one of the envelopes. Every week! Eight hundred letters! Eight hundred stamps!
John insisted on staying in constant communication with his constituents. There was no email back then. So, the only way we communicated was by snail mail, with stamps and the good, hard, and conscientious work of U.S. Postal Service employees.
So, it is a very special occasion to have John Lewis’ face on a Forever Stamp.
Having his face on a Forever Stamp is a forever reminder that the fabric of our nation is composed of richly diverse threads — different colors and ethnicities, young, old and new, in various shapes, sizes and patterns — and that the contributions of all must be respected, remembered and celebrated.
It is a reminder that every step along the way in the development of legislation, we must do as John did and ask the questions: How does this impact women? How does this impact the Hispanic or LGBTQ community? What about our senior citizens? What about our young people? What does this do to our families?
It is a reminder that we must communicate with each other, really talk to — not at, over or around — each other, get to know each other and work together, just as John Lewis always did in Congress, which is why he was called “the conscience of the Congress” and why when the president or the speaker of either party wanted to get the attention of members of Congress, they turned to John. He was listened to and heard across the aisle.
Having John Lewis’ face on a Forever Stamp is a reminder that while you can remove a mailbox, you cannot remove the man, his vision or his legacy and we must forever stand up for what he stood for.
John Lewis’ name is almost synonymous with Selma and Bloody Sunday. He dedicated his entire life to ensuring the right to vote. Others died for the right to vote. Lewis’ face is the face of voting rights. Having it on a stamp is a reminder that we must vote.
I still hear John Lewis saying, “The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy. We must protect it! We must use it!” I hope you hear him, too.
John Lewis’ legacy will live forever. Sure, he was special. But we can all be change agents like he was. All we have to do is continue his work — one step at a time.
Steps are a forward motion, so no matter how big or small the step, it’s about taking the step. Take the step to stand up, step up and get into a little bit of what Congressman Lewis called “good trouble.”
It may seem unimaginable that “the boy from Troy” became an esteemed congressman and showed the world that if we work together, we can accomplish greatness. The task may seem large, but if we work together in the spirit of Congressman John Lewis, we can be the David to the Goliath of hate, racism and inequality, knocking it to its feet.
The U.S. Postal Service will commemorate the life and legacy of Congressman John Lewis, Friday, July 21, 2023, at noon ET. The ceremony will take place at Morehouse College, Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel, located at 830 Westview Drive SW, Atlanta, GA 30341. Dedication attendees are encouraged to RSVP at: usps.com/johnlewis.
An attorney, Linda Earley Chastang was the inaugural president and CEO of the John and Lillian Miles Lewis Foundation. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, she went on to earn a JD from Howard University and an LLM from Emory University.
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