Moral clarity. Those were the words that came to mind when I learned that Rep. John Lewis had died. He had a moral compass and followed it. I asked my husband, “Is that a rare quality?” Gary thought about it for a bit and said, “I don’t know.” “It sure seems like it is,” I responded.
I can’t help but compare our current president, who clearly doesn’t have a moral molecule in his heartless body, to John Lewis. There is no comparison. In fact, I can’t bring myself to type Trump’s name in the same sentence.
After thinking for a bit, Gary looked at me, “You have moral clarity.”
Wow, that’s a major compliment. I thanked him but know that I am not in the same category – it is embarrassing to even write this. My family gives me more credit than I deserve for doing the right thing. I fall short often.
Thinking about John Lewis’s life I can’t help but be awed by his courage, consistency and vision. If I have moral clarity, I have not come close to living it in the way that he did. Some people live big lives. John Lewis did. Why? What is the difference between those that lead on a national or international stage and those that don’t. I’m thinking it is a combination of having a compelling vision, a willingness to step up, a calling to shoulder responsibility, and seizing the opportunity to act.
Maybe the truth is that we all have opportunities to act, and either we don’t step up or we try and fail. Perhaps we don’t have the courage required to put ourselves on the line – there is so much to fear, from losing a job to physical harm. Or maybe we try but don’t have the leadership qualities that inspire others, or maybe we don’t offer a message that resonates. It is amazing to think that John Lewis was 23 when he spoke at the March on Washington in 1963. So young and to already have ascended to that height! His willingness to put his body – his very life – on the line by participating in the Freedom Rides and the protests in Selma, among other activities, is awe inspiring.
I’m trying to think of times I have been in the presence of someone who had that kind of vision, determination and integrity. I can’t think of any. I can think of times I saw a speech on television that moved me. Mario Cuomo’s and Barack Obama’s convention speeches come to mind. But, again, that is different than a Black man sitting at a ‘Whites Only’ lunch counter and waiting for the painful consequences. Taking action is a different animal than soaring oratory. We need both to stir change. John Lewis did both – he used words and actions.
I think about my father who had a very strong sense of right and wrong and he communicated that in no uncertain terms to his children. The three of us benefitted from the clarity of his vision. He was a chapter chair in the teachers’ union and walked the picket line in New York City as a teacher in the 1960s, but he didn’t march on Washington or go to other protests. I wish I could talk to him about his choices. I’m not judging him – he lived an admirable life. I do wonder what he would say about leadership and courage, especially in this moment when both seem to be in such short supply.
We are living at a time where there is a paucity of leadership on the national level, certainly a lack of leadership that embraces an ethical code. We have a leader – we have a president. But he is so devoid of values, he has failed us miserably during this pandemic (and in addressing the systemic inequalities that the pandemic has made glaringly obvious).
I miss John Lewis already. Knowing his voice was out there gave me comfort. I know there are people doing good work, courageous work, trying to steer this country in a healthier direction. I hope leaders emerge who can bring us together. I am keeping an eye out for them.