John Lewis walks with our children

Shortly before he died on July 17, John Lewis wrote an essay to be published on the day of his funeral. It appeared in this morning’s New York Times, and in it, the civil rights leader and congressman speaks directly to our children with words of encouragement, guidance and challenge.

Like so many young people today, I was searching for a way out, or some might say a way in, and then I heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio. He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.

John Lewis

It’s a short, profound read, and after you read it with your kids you may want to listen to President Obama’s stirring eulogy of Mr. Lewis, delivered this afternoon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Your children may be too young for this right now, so you could read them this beautiful picture book, Preaching to the Chickens. Written by Jabari Asim and illustrated by E. B. Lewis, this book connects John’s strong faith to his actions, not only as an adult but as a child growing up on a rural Alabama farm. Tweens and teens will find Mr. Lewis’s award-winning graphic novel trilogy, March, a compelling introduction to the Civil Rights movement.

I got to know young Mr. Lewis through the pages of the most riveting non-fiction book I’ve ever read: The Children, by journalist David Halberstam, a chronicle of the young people who took the lessons of Reverend James Lawson’s nonviolence workshops to lunch counters and buses and the Edmund Pettus Bridge at great personal sacrifice, for their children and ours.

President Obama reminded us today that the young people who have filled our nation’s streets this summer, marching for justice, calling on us all to be “better, truer versions of ourselves,” are Mr. Lewis’s children, whether or not they knew they were following his example.

And that’s what John Lewis teaches us. That’s where real courage comes from, not from turning on each other, but by turning towards one another. Not by sowing hatred and division, but by spreading love and truth. Not by avoiding our responsibilities to create a better America and a better world, but by embracing those responsibilities with joy and perseverance and discovering that, in our beloved community, we do not walk alone.

Barack Obama

I am so grateful for the life and witness of John Lewis, and so deeply touched that at the end of his remarkable life, he wanted our children to know he walks with them still.

When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.

John Lewis

Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents.

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