PASSING THE BATON OF JUSTICE
Revisit some of the powerful moments Rep. John Lewis shared with President Obama during his presidency and afterwards as part of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance.
All of the young people...standing up, speaking up, being prepared to march. They’re going to help redeem the soul of America.”
—Rep. John Lewis, 2020
In President Obama’s reflection on the passing of his hero and friend, he shared that Rep. John Lewis “loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise. And through the decades, he not only gave all of himself to the cause of freedom and justice, but inspired generations that followed to try to live up to his example.”
Here at the Obama Foundation, our work is to inspire the next generation of leaders so that they can create a better world. Rep. John Lewis embodied that mission throughout his eighty years, and though we mourn his loss, we are lifted by his legacy—empowering young people to take up the baton of justice for years to come.
We hope the moments below are a reflection of his legacy and serve as a reminder for all of us to stand up for what is right and what is fair.
Rep. John Lewis and the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance
“If someone had not reached out to me, in my case it was Dr. King, I don’t know where I would be today. One man like President Obama can make a significant difference in the lives of these young men, and I applaud the president for throwing them a lifeline, to let them know someone they admire and respect wants to help them succeed.”
Since its launch, Rep. Lewis supported My Brother’s Keeper and its ongoing work to support boys and young men of color in the US. From a roundtable conversation with young men of color reflecting on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to a candid town hall conversation about the mental health toll racism and police violence takes on people of color, take a look back at Rep. John Lewis’ work with the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance:
In a powerful moment during the town hall, Rep. Lewis describes the courage he found in his faith, which allowed him to summon the strength he needed to keep fighting. It’s a testament to how he lived his life—and the example he set for future generations.
On the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 2018, Rep. John Lewis and President Obama joined students from Ron Brown College Preparatory High School—a part of Washington, DC’s work as an MBK Community—for a moving conversation about Dr. King’s life and legacy. Rep. Lewis shared personal reflections from his time working with Dr. King, and even brought photos from his personal collection to show the students and President Obama. You can see more from that special meeting here.
The My Brother’s Keeper Alliance was formed to scale and sustain its mission to address persistent opportunity gaps facing boys and young men of color and to ensure all youth can reach their full potential. You can learn more about the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance here.
“Because of you, John.”
“When I was elected President of the United States, I hugged him on the inauguration stand before I was sworn in and told him I was only there because of the sacrifices he made.”
At his first inauguration, President Obama shared a special moment with Rep. John Lewis:
“After absorbing the thudding roar from the Mall, Obama glanced to his right. He spotted there on the steps, a few feet away, John Lewis––squat, bald, hatless––the eleven-term representative of Georgia’s fifth congressional district and the only one of the speakers at the March on Washington still among the living. Obama bent to embrace him.
“Congratulations, Mr. President,” Lewis whispered in his ear.
Obama smiled at the sound of that and said, “Thank you, John. I’ll need your prayers.”
“You’ll have them, Mr. President. That, and all my support.”
At the luncheon following the swearing-in ceremony, Lewis approached Obama with a commemorative photograph and asked him to sign it. The President wrote, ‘Because of you, John. Barack Obama.’”
Excerpt from the January, 26, 2009 New Yorker article titled “The President’s Hero” by David Remnick
President Obama’s story wouldn’t be possible without activists and leaders like Rep. John Lewis pushing our nation to live up to its founding ideals, and that’s why the future Obama Presidential Center Museum will tell President Obama’s story in addition to the stories of brave, ordinary people who have come together throughout history to change the world. It will be a place to celebrate our collective progress, and it will remind us all that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.
Honoring the 50th Anniversary of Selma
“It is a rare honor in this life to follow one of your heroes. And John Lewis is one of my heroes.”
To mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches, President Obama and his family joined Rep. John Lewis at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a place that will forever be remembered as one that changed the course of the nation’s destiny. Take a look back at how President Obama honored Rep. Lewis, Rev. C.T. Vivian, and all the other brave Americans who marched for equality and shed blood in the pursuit of justice:
“America is not some fragile thing. We are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes. We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit. That’s why someone like John Lewis at the ripe old age of 25 could lead a mighty march.
And that’s what the young people here today and listening all across the country must take away from this day. You are America. Unconstrained by habit and convention. Unencumbered by what is, because you’re ready to seize what ought to be.
For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, there’s new ground to cover, there are more bridges to be crossed. And it is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history, who the nation is waiting to follow.
Because Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We.’ ‘We The People.’ ‘We Shall Overcome.’ ‘Yes We Can.’ (Applause.) That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.”
Congressman John Lewis Receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom
“Generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind—an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time; whose life is a lesson in the fierce urgency of now.”
In 2010, President Obama honored Rep. Lewis’ lifetime of activism with the nation’s highest civilian honor: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“There’s a quote inscribed over a doorway in Nashville, where students first refused to leave lunch counters 51 years ago this February. And the quote said, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” It’s a question John Lewis has been asking his entire life. It’s what led him back to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma after he had already been beaten within an inch of his life days before. It’s why, time and again, he faced down death so that all of us could share equally in the joys of life. It’s why all these years later, he is known as the Conscience of the United States Congress, still speaking his mind on issues of justice and equality. And generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind—an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time; whose life is a lesson in the fierce urgency of now.”
After receiving his medal, Rep. Lewis reflected on his life and the decades of activism that led up to the award:
In 2013, President Obama also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rev. Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian, another civil rights icon who passed away on July 17, 2020. You can watch Rev. C.T. Vivian reflect on his life and work here.
We all stand on the shoulders of Rep. Lewis, Rev. C.T. Vivian, and all the leaders and activists who came before us. The baton of justice is now ours to carry forward.
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