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Biographer Jon Meacham on why late Congressman John Lewis was an outlier

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Biographer Jon Meacham says most of his subjects have been flawed.

They weren’t perfect — or even good most of the time, Meacham told a Tulsa Town Hall audience. They only acted on the side of the angels “just enough of the time” to keep the country from falling apart.

“I write about sinners,” he said.

The exception, Meacham said, was the late Congressman John Lewis of Georgia.

“John Robert Lewis is a saint in a New Testament sense,” he said. “He was willing to die for those beliefs, and he never raised a hand in violence against anyone else, including persecutors who tried to kill him.”

Meacham’s book “His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope” tells the story of a Black Alabama sharecropper’s son who became one of the most respected men in America. A civil rights leader known for his moral and physical courage and toughness, Lewis became known as the “conscience of Congress.”

Meacham considers Lewis, who died July 17, 2020, at age 80, one of the most important figures in U.S. history.

“John Lewis was willing to die for two tributaries of faith,” Meacham said. “One was the New Testament understanding of the Gospel. The other was a secular understanding of the American Gospel, the good news about the country which is embodied in that great sentence that ‘All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’”

Former U.S. Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were among those who spoke passionately about late civil rights icon and U.S. Congressman John Lewis at his funeral in a historic Atlanta church Thursday. Lisa Bernhard produced this report.

Lewis is important, Meacham said, because he did so much to push the country to fully realize that statement.

Famously, Lewis was badly beaten by police as he and others led marchers demanding their voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. But even before that, he had put his life on the line.

He was nearly killed trying to use a filling station restroom in South Carolina. Birmingham’s notoriously violent and bigoted commissioner of public safety, Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, once personally drove Lewis to the Tennessee state line.

When Lewis returned, against the advice of friends and associates, he was shipped off to the equally notorious Parchman Prison.

Lewis was arrested 41 times during his life, Meacham said, causing him to always carry a piece of fruit, a toothbrush and a book with him, just in case.

In both a question and answer session with students prior to his speech and on stage, Meacham alluded to this month’s elections and what he deemed a narrow victory for the Constitution and the country.

“We were asking people to vote on a fairly high plane,” he told the students. “Don’t vote on inflation. Don’t vote on immediate, tactile issues. Vote for a republic. Vote for the rule of law. Vote for facts over ideology. And folks did. Not in overwhelming numbers — but America is not about overwhelming numbers. America is about just enough of us doing just enough of the right thing, just enough of the time.”

Later, during the lecture, Meacham was a little more blunt.

“We — I say ‘we’ because I’m a constitutionalist — won a battle in that midterm election,” he said. “Not the war, because the war is perennial. But what makes us keep fighting (for the republic)? What’s the why?

“Part of the why, I think, is that somebody like John Lewis was willing to die for this experiment. All you and I have to do, really, is vote, pay attention, and don’t be crazy.”

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