Leonard Pitts: John Lewis is the conscience of the nation

(Mark Humphrey | AP file photo) U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., poses for a photograph under a quote of his that is displayed in the Civil Rights Room in the Nashville Public Library in Nashville, Tenn., in November 2016. Lewis announced Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, that he has stage IV pancreatic cancer, vowing he will stay in office and fight the disease with the tenacity which he fought racial discrimination and other inequalities since the civil rights era.

My favorite picture of John Lewis is a mugshot.

It's from Mississippi in 1961, one of the earliest of an eventual 40-plus arrests he would undergo in the cause of freedom. Facing the state penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi, and the many hells that portended for a black man in the Jim Crow South, Lewis looked into the camera ... and smiled.

He smirked, actually, as if feeling renewed, even cocky, in his determination to make America live up to its ideals. I asked him about that picture once. The word he used was "liberated." From his very first arrest, he said, "I felt free."

The struggle to make America act like America has never ended. And Lewis, now a 79-year-old congressman from Georgia, has never been far from the center of the struggle. For this, he is often called the conscience of the nation, the man who reminds us what it is we're supposed to be.

That reminder feels poignant in the wake of news that Lewis has been diagnosed with Stage Four pancreatic cancer. “I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life,” he said in a statement. “I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now.”


Survival rates for the disease — game show host Alex Trebek is also fighting it — are daunting, and Lewis said that, while he is "clear-eyed" about his prognosis, "I have decided to do what I know to do and do what I have always done: I am going to fight it and keep fighting for the Beloved Community."

First Rep. Elijah Cummings, now this. There is an unavoidable sense that the universe is not playing fair. And one feels, too, the chill wind of an imperative. "Let us now praise righteous men," it says. "While we still can."

Cummings, you will recall, died in October. Like Lewis, he was a man of palpable faith in what America is supposed to be. "When we're dancing with the angels," he famously said, "the question will be asked: In 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact?"

Now he's up in some celestial disco, now Lewis is stricken and the grief you feel is not just for them, but for us, for the idea of what America is supposed to be. What becomes of an idea when no one believes in it anymore?

That's hyperbolic, yes. Obviously, there are still believers. The people in those squalid camps on our southern border are proof of that. But the camps themselves are proof that we are living through a drought of righteousness. Worse, we are living through a time of unrighteousness ascendant, brazen and ostentatious, with truth not simply under siege, but fully beside the point.

In the White House, war drums rumble as troops are deployed for dubious cause. In the Senate, preparations are openly made to rig an impeachment trial. Meantime, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., tweets an image of Barack Obama shaking hands with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a man he had never met. Called out on this lie, Gosar replies that he never said the image “wasn’t photoshopped.” He has the nerve to sound indignant.

This is not the way Americans are supposed to be.

No, this is the behavior of those whose interests are purely selfish. But Cummings and Lewis held — and hold — stubbornly to a larger something, an ideal which begins, "We the people ..." And if that feels dated and overly sentimental, it nevertheless appeals, doesn't it, to something in our cynical souls, some national fable we once knew but have long since forgot?

It's that something that made Lewis smirk at the camera, like he knew something so many other Americans did not.

And you know something? He did.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com