When I heard of the passing of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), one of the last of a generation of civil rights era giants, my first reaction was like that of millions of Americans and advocates for justice around the globe: profound sadness. We have lost the embodiment of that generation’s struggle for justice and equality, the quest for a more perfect union. We have lost the chance to hear him at the planned commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington. (He was the last remaining speaker.) We have lost the opportunity to celebrate with him an election that, I fervently pray, can repudiate a cruel, racist president. It is easy to be despondent — as many were after the passing of George H.W. Bush or John McCain or Elijah Cummings — that the leaders we are left with seem small and unequal to the great challenges of our era.
As I thought about Lewis, however, I realized that even in his passing he provided a lesson to his countrymen. Courage defined his life — moral courage to identify wrongs and denounce them and physical courage to endure attacks at sit-ins and incarceration and the infamous Parchman Farm prison and to risk his life at a the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which surely should be renamed in his honor
Courage, Aristotle said, is the first virtue, the virtue that gives meaning to all other virtues. What good is empathy if one does not have the courage to act on it in the face of a mob? What good is honesty if one does not have the courage to speak honestly to the powerful? Lewis reminds us it is not enough to rage at oppressors from the comfort of our homes or bemoan election results in which we do not participate.
In an era when Republicans are extolled as courageous for merely refusing to go along with the Trump cult and others cower before online bullies, real courage, Lewis’s courage (honored and echoed in the actions of the Black Lives Matter protesters) seems at times beyond our modern comprehension. The comfortable and privileged who wallow in self-pity and the fake victimhood of social media martyrdom should take stock. Former officials who preferred money and fame and social comfort over public duty should be ashamed to have refused to step forward when their country needed their account of presidential malfeasance.
Courage is what is required of Americans in the next few months. We will need courage to denounce lies, to defend the weak and powerless, to refuse to accept the impulsive and unwarranted deployment of federal power, to elevate science over hokum, to repudiate evil (especially when it emanates from one’s own party), to risk power and privilege to uphold our democratic values, to reject the lure of being inconspicuous so as to avoid the wrath of the powerful, to face defeat at the polls to uphold the Constitution, to endure abuse without complaint or self-congratulation, and to take responsibility for our democracy. That’s our charge until Election Day. Confront liars. Vote as if your life depended upon it. Reject cynicism, nihilism and fatalism.
By doing this over the next weeks and months, we can pay tribute to John Lewis and to the virtue of courage. The reward — aside, we hope, from the preservation of democracy — will be only the quiet satisfaction of knowing we did what was right and what was necessary at a perilous time in our history.