Growing up outside of Washington, D.C., I was the person who slowed everyone down during family outings to pore over every quote etched into granite and study every face sketched in marble. I was fascinated by history, and as I grew older, I met the men and women behind the visible monuments—the great cloud of witnesses in Black history. I read Toni Morrison and listened to Prince, desperate to make up for not knowing them sooner. Maybe this is why John Lewis, an elder of key civil rights moments, started to feel very dear to me. His life’s work and the fact that his face held the same dignified lines as my father’s filled me with a longing to learn more about him before he also left us. As months passed and Lewis fought cancer, tears filled my eyes every time I saw his smaller frame leading a crowd. And then I woke up a few Saturdays ago to the news that, at eighty years of age, John Lewis had passed his fight for good trouble to us.
John Robert Lewis is best known as a “civil rights icon,” but that description does not sufficiently capture his impact on my life. I’ve rejected the reverence bestowed on this country’s eighteenth-century leaders, but as news outlets began to label John Lewis a “founding father,” the title resonated. I embrace John as one of my founding fathers—someone who shows me where we’ve been and where we should go—because he teaches me what a sustainable response can look like in a moment pregnant with change.
Recognizing Lewis as a founding father breaks down my individualistic ideas of heroism, for his story is also the story of a web of contributors: of local businesspeople who risked their lives to bring food to him and fellow protestors as they stood in the blistering heat, hoping to register to vote. His life is a tribute to the neighbors who sheltered Lewis as he fled police violence at night, the pastors who opened up basements for strategic meetings, and the friends who drove him hundreds of miles at a minute’s notice in response to a new uprising.
John Lewis’s life work inspires my insistence on seeing the connections between us—from Ghana to Honduras to the U.S. He grasped the connecting lines between the fight of his community and the worldwide, intersectional struggle for liberation: from South Africa to Selma, from low wages to the right to vote. From being the youngest speaker at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom to his last public appearance in D.C.’s Black Lives Matter plaza with a “1619” cap, he understood how necessary the fight for justice was in every aspect of life.
But what most makes John Lewis one of my founding fathers is his lifelong rootedness in love. When I say “love,” I don’t mean the flimsy language we often use for a ‘gentle soul’ like John Lewis. His love was solid and targeted, not simply at an amorphous haze of hate (which is easy to denounce), but at the hate that politely settles into our laws, norms, and discourse. Lewis’s love pushed him to specifically identify state-sponsored oppression and then to confront it with protests that starkly dramatized the everyday position of the marginalized—subject to the state’s violence with no recourse.
And so as I sat with his autobiographical comic book that arrived the week of his death, I asked myself, “How does one honor such a life?”
I again turn away from the usual founding father formula that would call for symbols, a sign of what journalist Chris Hayes calls our tendency to be “a self-mythologizing people.” Our fundamental inability to distinguish between history, memory, and honor may lead us to only name bridges, mold statutes, and cut ribbons in Lewis’ honor. All of these actions are beautiful and can leave us full of belonging, yet they ring hollow if his legacy is dismantled.
When wielded by those with something to lose from change, these symbols conveniently leave us beyond the reach of current truths and distract the conversation away from Lewis’s own stated goals of “protect[ing] people from police brutality,” “help[ing] thousands of black citizens who want to vote,” or “free[ing] ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery.” We run the risk of storying John Lewis to the point where his life seems fated and inevitable and thus irreplicable for us, “the children of the movement.”
So what good are founding fathers? I propose that they help us to ask, in the words of NAACP lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill, “What are we prepared to dismantle, and what are we prepared to build?” They spark us to understand the truth of our moment and the power of our choices. Few embraced this role of a spark better than John Lewis, who once led children at a comic con in a march, dressed in a tan trench coat and knapsack like the one he wore in Selma. And so this year, I look for my own place in the Freedom Summers of the future and give thanks for a father who grounds me just as much as he stirs me to action.
Comfort Sampong’s heart is sparked by fried plantains, tropical foliage and the stories of women thriving and creating a way out of no way. She graduated in 2018 with majors in economics and international development. Now she lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where she works on English communications for the Association for a More Just Society, a Honduran non-profit fighting for justice and peace.