U.S. Rep. John Lewis, was the youngest and last surviving member of the Big Six civil rights activists who led the fight to end legalized segregation and overturn Jim Crow laws. He was arrested dozens of times and also beaten as a Freedom Rider. Alex Wong/Getty Images
(*This post has been updated to correct a time reference to the 2020 election)
By Madeleine Dean
What a year it has been. As we struggle with loss, despair, and sacrifice, we’re searching for hope. We lean on one another and lead with our common humanity.
We have lost heroes — U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — whose tenacity, wisdom, and life’s work is the guiding light on the difficult path ahead.
Lewis was a hero to all of us — for standing on the right side of history, on the side of equality, civil rights and the principles our nation promised in our founding documents. Lewis fought for justice every day: from the March on Washington in 1963, to the brutal 1965 crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, to his final appearance in June standing in Black Lives Matter Plaza with a cap that simply read “1619.”
It was an honor to serve with Lewis in Congress. The very last time I heard his voice was on a caucus call following the brutal killing of George Floyd.
“In all of my years involved in the American Civil Rights Movement, I have never witnessed a scene like the past few days. People of diverse backgrounds coming together, preaching the good news, believing that somehow and someway we shall overcome. So hang in there,” Lewis said.
As the face of the struggle for a more perfect union, he echoed sentiments of his civil rights journey, “Be Bold. Be Brave. Keep the Faith. Keep your eyes on the prize, keep working. Don’t get weary.”
*I began to repeat Lewis’ words to myself over the months leading up to the election and beyond, and I can’t help feeling hopeful, for a nation of diversity, equality, and unity — one that Lewis strived for his entire life.
In and out of Congress, John Lewis inspired my journey; and as a woman, as a trained lawyer, and a believer in our Constitution, the rule of law, and the pursuit of greater equality for all, Ruth Bader Ginsburg paved the road on which I walk.
The death of this icon and role model was heartbreaking from my generation to the generations ahead of me: my daughters-in-law and my granddaughters, Aubrey and Ella. With her loss, I received hundreds of text messages about her ability to inspire and breathe hope.
Ginsburg took a stand against gender inequality, voter suppression, and LGBTQ+ discrimination. When I get discouraged, I recall what she said about the purpose of dissent: “Dissent speaks to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘my colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way,’ but the greatest dissents do become court opinions.”
Many of us are lucky to have people in our lives whom we wish the world knew of and celebrated. For me, that was my mother-in-law, Joan Walsh Cunnane.
Joanie changed the world where she lived for the better. She too was a civil rights giant, who lived life completely without apology — whether protesting for peace, for civil rights, voting rights or women’s rights. Joan died on May the 3rd of COVID-19. The passion for justice and equality she instilled in her family remains and we miss her.
And so while this has been and will continue to be a year of extraordinary losses — I am certain we must use what we have learned from the heroes all around us, with every fiber of our being, to walk and work with dignity, to see the common humanity in each of us, as we work toward a more perfect union.
May their memories be a blessing.
U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, a Democrat, represents the Montgomery County-based 4th Congressional District. She writes from Washington D.C.
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