Jul 28, 2020 | Atlanta, GA
I shed a tear on July 17 when I learned of the death of Congressman John Lewis. I am heartbroken. He was one to be emulated, a true hero in words and action. A loud, yet quiet and dignified presence. He carried the torch of the civil rights movement unlike any of his contemporaries.
I was an undergraduate from 1968 to 1972. I remember vividly the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and marched with hundreds of thousands in the conflated Vietnam War and civil rights protests. Protests led — and inspired — by people like John Lewis. To me, his death is the end of an era of leaders and icons who truly kept the dream alive.
I had the honor to shake hands and exchange pleasantries with Congressman Lewis a few times. I am sure he would not remember me, but I will never forget him. During the ceremony where he received the Ivan Allen Prize for Social Courage, I went as far as taking a picture with him and getting him to sign dedicated programs that I sent to my two grown children. I have only done that three times in my life.
Throughout my long and wonderful career, I have had dinner with kings; discussions with chiefs of state (including U.S. presidents); debated with Nobel Prize winners; negotiated with giants of industry; and championed the importance of water as a social good with the head of a world religion. But I have been in awe of only four people — to the point that I bothered them for a picture and/or autograph.
John Lewis was one. Another was Nelson Mandela. Mandela was released from prison on February 11, 1990. Approximately a year later, I was in Switzerland with my wife Pat, participating in a large meeting where Mandela was a featured panelist. One evening, Pat and I were walking into the lobby of our hotel, and there he stood. At that point, he was not yet the president of South Africa. Here was a man in the midst of negotiating the dismantling of one of the most abusive, discriminatory regimes in history. Here was a man who suffered 27 years of imprisonment and transformed himself from activist/violent revolutionary to a statesman. He was the de facto moral leader of South Africa, and, for that matter, of all that opposed apartheid and racial discrimination around the world.
I had read a lot about Mandela and had an image of the man. Seeing him reinforced that image. He stood tall, with grace, dignity, and humility, but also authority. It took me a minute to muster the courage to walk up to him and introduce myself. Mandela was the symbol of racial justice throughout the world. A man who had the courage and fortitude to forgive but not forget. A man who could have become a dictator but ultimately chose to step away from power. He was a soft voice of reason and a source of strength gained by years of disciplined focus on the important goal of freeing his people, and, in doing so, freeing and empowering the rest of us. Thirty years later, I still cherish that moment — nothing to him, I suspect, but life-changing for me.
Last February, I wrote: “To me, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter are the paragons of servant leaders. I cannot begin to explain what it meant for me to visit with them at their church. I have enormous admiration for them. In their presence, I found myself speechless. When I think of what they have accomplished and done, all with such grace and extraordinary humility, I feel completely unaccomplished and small — what a life they have had! They have done so much for so many.” Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter are truly a team; I have observed them in action. I have seen her listening carefully to his comments and correcting misstatements — in public. They are the best of teams personally and in their very public life. I have often wondered how they reconcile their very humble, giving, caring life with the very public, powerful existence they have experienced which, as we know, can be corrosive. But after all, that is what makes them great leaders. Pat and I were given a quick moment to speak with the Carters and take a photo following the church service. That moment and the photo are memories l will cherish forever.
In his autobiographic book An Hour Before Daylight, Jimmy Carter writes honestly about the racism of the community and society he grew up in, evident everywhere, including in his family. He speaks about playing with his childhood best friend, an African American, and then accepting their separation when they went to the movies. That was the norm, and at that point unquestionable. That President Carter and Rosalynn Carter accept that we are the product of the times and the context we grow up in is commendable but that they are wise enough to recognize all that was wrong with that racist culture — and personally change and spend their lives working for civil rights and social justice — is what makes them both admirable.
Lewis, Mandela, and the Carters changed the world. They certainly have changed my world. We need more like them. I eagerly wait for the next Johns, Nelsons, Jimmys and Rosalynns. We need them more than ever.
-Rafael L. Bras