John Lewis’s Unconditional Love of Country

He always believed in the possibility of perfecting our union.

I’ve never been one who believed that human beings are capable of demonstrating unconditional love. As Arthur Miller wrote about so eloquently in his play After the Fall, “to go to someone with the lie of limitless love is to cast a shadow in the face of God.”

John Lewis, however, demonstrated the closest thing we’ve seen to unconditional love of country. On the day before he was hospitalized for the last time, he visited Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C.

In an open letter to America that Lewis wrote just before he died, which would be published on the day of his funeral, he explained why.

While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.

That is why I had to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, though I was admitted to the hospital the following day. I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on.

We all know the stories about how Lewis put his body on the line to fight for the right to vote and an end to Jim Crow laws. We’ve also heard that he was the son of a share cropper, picking cotton as a child. But take a moment to think about what it must have been like to grow up in the shadow of this.

Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. He was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time. I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me. In those days, fear constrained us like an imaginary prison, and troubling thoughts of potential brutality committed for no understandable reason were the bars.

Though I was surrounded by two loving parents, plenty of brothers, sisters and cousins, their love could not protect me from the unholy oppression waiting just outside that family circle.

It was the beating and lynching of Emmett Till that sparked the Civil Rights Movement in this country. John Lewis wasn’t the only young Black child who grew up in the midst of that kind of terror. It is what they did with that terror that is truly astounding. Here is what Lewis wrote about that.

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.

Instead of hate and retribution in response to a country that had initially enslaved his people and then unleashed a reign of terror, young people like John Lewis set out to change things for the better. He understood something that too many of us have forgotten, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.” In other words, after all this country had done to African Americans, John Lewis still believed in the democratic process of perfecting our union. He continued to do so up until the day he died.

Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it…

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.

No human being is perfect, and John Lewis was no exception. But I can’t imagine a more powerful demonstration of unconditional love of country than what he exhibited. Even after all of the blows he experienced personally over 80 years, he still believed in the ability of this country to lay down “the heavy burdens of hate.” Is there a more powerful demonstration of patriotism?

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.