U.S. Congress member John Lewis is short and bald and unfailingly humble. Before he could say a word during a quick September stop in Cleveland to accept the Louis Stokes Community Vision Award, a breakfast crowd of more than 500 gave the 77-year-old a thunderous standing ovation.
Overhead in the Renaissance Hotel’s Grand Ballroom, the film trailer for “Selma” had spun out a brief, heart-clenching re-enactment of Bloody Sunday in 1965, when law enforcement officials beat Lewis unconscious on Alabama’s Edmund Pettis Bridge. The Canadian actor playing Lewis – Stephan James – appears in the
trailer four times.
A clip from the John Lewis episode of “Finding Your Roots” followed. It re-played the revelation that Tobias Carter, the Atlanta congress member’s great great great grandfather, had registered to vote in Alabama in 1867, after the end of the Civil War. “Maybe, just maybe, it’s part of my DNA,” Lewis says, shaking his head
in disbelief. “It’s just incredible.”
For writing about his own incredible life, Lewis won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1999. His memoir, called Walking with the Wind, got a graphic version update: March. This trilogy has reintroduced the Civil Rights movement for the 21st -century generation, and became the campus-wide reading selection at Marquette, Michigan State and Georgia State universities.
Steven A. Minter, master of ceremony for the Stokes award, called Lewis “a great moral leader in these troubled times.” Minter quoted Lewis from Walking with the Wind: “When I care about something, I am prepared to take the long hard road. That is what faith is about.”
Minter called on the audience to celebrate Lewis, the late Louis Stokes and the Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation, which works to revitalize Cleveland’s historic Fairfax neighborhood.
“Revitalizing communities takes time,” said Executive Director Denise VanLeer. “It really is unique to get input from everyone in a way that no one is more important than anyone else. And that’s not easy.”
VanLeer said she loved hearing Lewis’ standard story about being a four-year-old boy preaching to the chickens in the yard of his parent’s farm in Pike County, Ala. In his mellifluous baritone, Lewis still preaches, delivering a few choice words for Cleveland: “Louis Stokes believed health care was a right for everybody. Growing up in rural Alabama, we did not have health insurance, we had burial insurance. . .We’ve gone a distance; we’ve made a bit of progress. But there are forces today trying to take us back.”
In the ballroom and on Twitter, Lewis urges: “Each and every person has a mission, a mandate and a moral obligation to speak up and stand up for those left out and left behind.”
VanLeer reflected on a recent example close to her, when a grandmother in Griot Village, the intergenerational housing in Fairfax, was asked to take in a fourth grandchild, an infant. The woman said she was too weary to begin again with a new baby, but her neighbors rallied to take shifts of childcare and the staff of Fairfax Renaissance rounded up clothing and supplies. In the end, the grandmother took that fourth child.
“It was a beautiful example of the community pulling together,” VanLeer said. “It is why we get up in the morning.”