The word “freedom” has been tainted by too-frequent misuse, by political leaders who deploy it in order to justify people being free of the food, care, and safety we all require, or free of the obligation to support those most in need. But when then-president Barack Obama bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom upon Representative John Lewis in 2010, it felt momentarily as though we had been rescued from that corrupted vision of freedom, and instead were witnessing the word at work in its true sense.
Lewis was one of the 13 original Freedom Riders, activists who braved violence and harassment simply for defying racial segregation in interstate bus travel. On the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he was beaten by Alabama State Troopers for attempting to secure for Black people the freedom to vote, and he spoke at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His life, from his childhood as the son of sharecroppers in Jim Crow Alabama, to becoming one of the most respected members of Congress, is itself a monument of the freedom Black Americans have been able to secure for themselves despite centuries of injustice.
Lewis died Friday at 80 years old. On Saturday morning, Obama posted a moving statement to Medium about the civil rights icon and his legacy.
“He loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise,” the former president wrote of Lewis. “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.”
Obama first met Lewis when he was a law student, and wrote that before he was inaugurated as president, he hugged the congressman and “and told him I was only there because of the sacrifices he made.”
In so many ways, John’s life was exceptional. But he never believed that what he did was more than any citizen of this country might do. He believed that in all of us, there exists the capacity for great courage, a longing to do what’s right, a willingness to love all people, and to extend to them their God-given rights to dignity and respect. And it’s because he saw the best in all of us that he will continue, even in his passing, to serve as a beacon in that long journey towards a more perfect union.
“Not many of us get to live to see our own legacy play out in such a meaningful, remarkable way,” Obama concluded. “John Lewis did. And thanks to him, we now all have our marching orders—to keep believing in the possibility of remaking this country we love until it lives up to its full promise.”
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