What difference can one person make? If you had asked me this question last year, my response would have been pessimistic. The world is too big — one person cannot really make a difference. I certainly cannot make a difference. After all, I am just a teenager.
That was before I met John Lewis.
Last summer I had the opportunity to accompany a family friend onto the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. As I exited the floor, a gentle hand pulled me aside. Expecting to see my friend, I was astonished when I looked into the eyes of Congressman John Lewis.
“I’d like to speak with you for a moment. Do you have time?”
In a quiet alcove just off of the House floor, my sister and I had the honor of conversing with one of America’s great heroes.
Congressman Lewis put his arms around my sister and me, speaking intently, as if there was no one else in the world except us. His voice was quiet yet piercing. He looked me in the eye and said, “Let me tell you of my work with Dr. King.”
John Lewis first heard Martin Luther King Jr. preach when he was my age — 15 years old. Of that experience, he said, “That day, listening to Dr. King, it gave me the sense that things could change.”
Since that day as a teenager, John Lewis has affected much change. As a civil rights leader, a proponent of nonviolence and a congressman of more than 30 years, John Lewis has spent his life advocating for the marginalized and oppressed.
Back in the hallway, my sister told Congressman Lewis of a book she had recently read about his childhood, entitled, “Preaching to Chickens.”
He laughed, smile lines next to his eyes.
“Yes, I wanted to be a preacher when I was a boy. It was the only way I knew to get my message to others. You know, I tried to baptize some of those chickens, but chickens can’t swim.”
Even as a young boy, John Lewis followed through. It wasn’t enough just to preach to the chickens. No, he would make sure those chickens were baptized!
He told us more about the Civil Rights Movement — of marches, strikes and peaceful protests. He told us it was now my generation’s turn to join in the fight for equality and fairness.
“You children are our future,” he said to me. He stared into my eyes as he spoke, and I felt his words in my bones.
Fifty-five years ago, John Lewis led the historic march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Beaten and tear-gassed by the police, he continued to lead his fellow protestors. He marched on.
John Lewis returned to Selma in March of this year, despite his battle with stage IV pancreatic cancer, to commemorate his march and inspire others to stand up for the oppressed. When asked about his diagnosis, John Lewis told reporters, “I am going to fight it and keep fighting for the Beloved Community. We still have many bridges to cross.”
On Friday, July 17, 2020, after 80 years of inspiring others to continue the march toward equality, John Lewis, passed away.
As we find ourselves in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, John Lewis’ words ring truer than ever. Speaking of the movement, he said, “This feels and looks so different ... there will be no turning back. People now understand what the struggle was all about. It is another step down a very, very long road to freedom, justice for all humankind.”
Now, it is our turn: our turn to seize the initiative, to take up the mantle and continue John Lewis’ march. So keep marching. Keep demanding change. Find it within yourself to change. We can continue what John Lewis believed in. We can take an active role as we affect change and cross bridges, not as spectators but as leaders, as we strive to create a better world now and for generations to come.
If you were to ask me today, after meeting John Lewis, if one person can make a difference, my response would be: “Yes. Absolutely, one person can make a difference. I can make a difference.”
We should all follow the example of the great John Lewis and continue the march.
Adelaide Parker is a junior at West High School in Salt Lake City.