The longtime congressman's book, Carry On: Reflections for a New Generation, published posthumously last week

By Sam Gillette
July 19, 2021 03:10 PM
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John Lewis and his wife Lillian
John and Lillian Lewis
| Credit: Linda Schaeffer/AP/Shutterstock

Before his death in July 2020, John Lewis wrote touching tributes to the people who impacted him the most — including his wife, Lillian Miles Lewis, and his mentor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"She was warm and giving, she was a beautiful mother—and I miss her," Lewis wrote of his wife, who died in December 2012. The longtime congressman's book, Carry On: Reflections for a New Generation, published posthumously last week.

As much as Lewis treasured their time together, he admits that a romantic relationship wasn't always his priority.

"For the early part of my life, I was married to the movement, and I didn't have time to take my personal life into consideration," Lewis wrote of his role as a leader in the civil rights movement that resulted in his name appearing in history books and in the minds of Black Lives Matter activists, many of whom consider him an inspiration and a role model.

He added, "We were too busy trying to survive."

During the 1960s, Lewis was arrested and beaten numerous times as he practiced nonviolent protest to end segregation. In 1967, Lewis met Lillian Miles, a librarian and teacher, and married her the next year. She became one of his closest political advisors.

john lewis
Credit: Amazon

Citing "unconditional love" as the key to a long-lasting marriage, Lewis explains that, "[Lillian] encouraged me to run for Congress in 1977, which I did but lost. And she was there to comfort me."

He continued, "She was integral to my life in every way. She made me laugh... And she was the life of a party. She was even good-natured about driving me around all those years when I didn't have my license!"

Nine years before Lewis met his wife, the 18-year-old heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the minister and civil rights leader, speak on the radio. Lewis was so moved that he wrote Dr. King a letter.

"I didn't let my mother, father or teachers know that I had written him. And he wrote me back and invited me to join him in Alabama," wrote Lewis, who hailed from Troy, Ala.

"He called me 'the Boy from Troy.' I got involved in the movement and tried to play a humble role in helping right the wrongs that so many of my fellow brothers and sisters had faced," he continued in Carry On. "Throughout it all, I maintained hope."

Martin Luther King Jr. with John Lewis
Martin Luther King Jr. with John Lewis at a mass meeting in Nashville, Tenn.
| Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Lewis was one of the first Freedom Riders and led non-violent demonstrations to protest segregation in the South. "I don't fear death," wrote Lewis in Carry On, recounting the danger he faced in the South in the '60s. "I've faced death before."

He was one of six leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., to organize the historic 1963 March on Washington. On March 7, 1965, Lewis led a large march in Selma, Ala. that resulted in protesters being attacked by troopers in riot gear. Lewis' skull was cracked by a trooper with a billy club. The violent images from "Bloody Sunday" helped garner a wave of public support for the Voting Rights Act that was signed into law that August.

In 1986, Lewis was elected to Congress for the first time. He was re-elected 16 times and used his time as a representative to continue the fight for civil rights.

When Lewis got into "good trouble" — as he famously called his work as an activist and civil rights leader — he often thought about the lessons he learned from Dr. King.

"Dr. King taught us that we must have love in our hearts and for our fellow brothers and sisters," Lewis wrote in Carry On. "He freed and liberated Blacks and whites and everyone from a culture of division into one of unity."

John Lewis
John Lewis getting arrested in Jackson, Mississippi
| Credit: Bettmann/Corbis

In Carry On, Lewis shared what he would say to Dr. King — who was assassinated on April 4, 1968 — after thanking him for all he'd done "to improve our country and our world."

"I would catch him up on this year 2020 especially and say, 'Look at the progress we've made and look at the work we still have to do,' " wrote Lewis.

Lewis reflected on the Black Lives Matter protests that surged after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. " 'We've been remembering your example and listening to your words. We can still hear you. I hear you every day.' "

In his book, Lewis did more than share loving tributes. He also provided lessons to current activists, including emphasizing the importance of forgiveness.

"Only once did someone apologize for attacking me," wrote Lewis. "I was beaten up, bloodied, and bruised after the Freedom Ride to Rock Hill, South Carolina, in 1961."

He explained that about 50 years later, one of the attackers, Elwin Wilson, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, apologized to the Freedom Riders publicly. The congressman accepted Wilson's apology.

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"We hugged and cried together," Lewis remembered in the book. "He had grown to see what was decent and right. He told me that he wanted to 'make right' before meeting his Maker, and I believed he did just that."

"My daddy always told me that a fool never changes his mind, and a smart man changes his mind. And that's what I've done, and I'm not ashamed of it," Wilson told CNN's Don Lemon in 2009, according to the outlet. "I feel like I'm apologizing to the world right now."

In his book, Lewis warned fellow activists that an apology for hate-filled behavior may never come, but that forgiveness is imperative either way.

"I didn't need [Elwin Wilson] to apologize to forgive him," Lewis wrote. "Because I had long ago decided that I wasn't going to be bound by the mental shackles of hate, anger, and discontent. Forgiveness is medicine for the mind, balm for the body, and healing for the heart."

Carry On is on sale now.