Mary Mitchell and Lynn Sweet rem­i­nisce about civil rights icon John Lewis


The fu­neral for civil rights icon John Lewis will be Thurs­day in At­lanta. Lewis, a mem­ber of the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Ge­or­gia, died July 17. His pass­ing threw a spot­light on that Bloody Sun­day in 1965 when he and other vot­ing rights pro­test­ers on a march from Selma to Mont­gomery were beaten at the Ed­mund Pet­tus Bridge.

On March 4, 2007, Mary Mitchell and Lynn Sweet were in Selma to cover Demo­crat pri­mary ri­vals Barack Obama and Hil­lary Clinton as they courted African Amer­i­can sup­port at the 42nd an­niver­sary of that 1965 march. John Lewis was there, of course, and his death sparked this con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Mary and Lynn.

What struck us most about the march

MARY: Of all the marches that civil rights leader and Con­gress­man John Lewis led across the Ed­mund Pet­tus Bridge after the in­fa­mous “Bloody Sun­day” in 1965, the cross­ing in March 2007 fore­shad­owed what a huge role he would play in get­ting Barack Obama elected the coun­try’s first Black pres­i­dent. Lead­ing up to that march, Lewis was pres­sured on all sides to tell the world whom he was en­dors­ing in the show­down be­tween Hil­lary Clinton and Obama for the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion. Lewis didn’t say a word. He left us scram­bling to fig­ure whether the nod would go to the front­line Clin­tons or the up­start Oba­mas. On that day, Obama would praise Lewis dur­ing a key­note ad­dress at the his­toric Brown Chapel AME Church, call­ing him one of the “great he­roes of Amer­i­can his­tory.” “He is some­body who cap­tures the essence of de­cency and courage, some­body who I have ad­mired all my life and were not for him I am not sure I would be here to­day,” Obama said.

LYNN: Clinton and Obama were ac­tively woo­ing John Lewis’ en­dorse­ment, and ev­ery­one was try­ing to read the tea leaves that day. What I re­mem­ber vividly was that front­line as­sem­bled for the march across the bridge — a vis­ual sign of unity for the civil rights strug­gle among the ri­vals. Obama was on one side, Hil­lary and Bill Clinton on the other with civil rights le­gends in be­tween. Lewis was at Clinton’s side, holding her hand. He would go on to en­dorse her, later to de­fect to Obama. This was my first trip to Alabama. It was one thing to read about Selma, an­other to walk the streets and see the in­fa­mous bridge. I learned a lot.

What does it mean to stand on the shoul­ders of a man like John Lewis?

MARY: Dur­ing the early days of his cam­paign, Obama had to dis­pel the false nar­ra­tive that his ex­pe­ri­ence as the child of an African fa­ther from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas meant he would be un­able to re­late to the civil rights strug­gles that shaped John Lewis’ lead­er­ship. In Obama’s speech at the Brown Chapel, be­fore an au­di­ence that in­cluded all the great Black preach­ers, in­clud­ing the Rev. C.T. Vi­vian — an­other civil rights icon who also died July 17 — Obama al­luded to his Kenyan grand­fa­ther’s life as a “cook” and a “house­boy” to Amer­ica’s slav­ery era.

“He had to carry a pass­book around be­cause Africans in their own coun­try could not move about freely,” Obama said.

LYNN: That was the day Obama said he was part of the “Joshua” gen­er­a­tion, tak­ing the ba­ton from lead­ers like Lewis and oth­ers who were in the “Moses” gen­er­a­tion. In 2007, we wrote about how the Clin­tons — Bill and Hil­lary — and Obama — were try­ing to claim the legacy of the vot­ing rights bat­tles that had been fought. In 2013, the Supreme Court gut­ted the Vot­ing Rights Act that be­came law in 1965, months after Selma. A new ver­sion passed in the Demo­cratic House and is stalled in the Repub­li­can Se­nate. It’s the post-Joshua, post-Obama gen­er­a­tion, com­ing of age in the Ge­orge Floyd/Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump era, who will be stand­ing on the shoul­ders of Lewis.

How will his pass­ing im­pact this new civil rights move­ment hap­pen­ing now?

MARY: His death re­ally raises the is­sue of who comes next. The old civil rights move­ment dealt with end­ing the kind of dis­crim­i­na­tion that kept Black peo­ple from get­ting good-pay­ing jobs and from liv­ing in cer­tain neigh­bor­hoods or go­ing to bet­ter schools. This new civil rights move­ment is about ex­pos­ing and rid­ding our so­ci­ety of the com­mon­place bi­ases that un­der­mine a Black per­son’s dig­nity — false ar­rests and po­lice bru­tal­ity, for in­stance. Iron­i­cally, here in this mo­ment as great lead­ers like John Lewis pass on, we are say­ing we are not go­ing to ac­cept it any­more. We are not go­ing to live with it.

LYNN: Pick­ing up on your point about this new civil rights move­ment: What strikes me is how de­cen­tral­ized the emerg­ing “move­ment” is right now. Per­haps his legacy — his im­pact — is to re­mem­ber Lewis was beaten at the bridge, but not beat.


Dur­ing the Demo­cratic pri­mary cam­paign, on March 4, 2007, ri­vals Barack Obama (third from left) and Hil­lary Clinton (fourth from right) joined civil rights gi­ant John Lewis (fifth from right) and oth­ers to head to the Ed­mund Pet­tus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to mark the 1965 “Bloody Sun­day” march.

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