Are we ready for an America without civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis?

Are we ready for an America without civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis?
Are we ready for an America without civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis?  

This is a scary time.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis has Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. There's a chance he could survive. But the diagnosis is typically a death sentence, and everyone knows it.

What we don't know is whether we're ready for a world without him.

It doesn't feel like it.

Are people from my generation ready to take over the fights for civil rights and fair pay? Are people from Lewis' generation ready to pass the reins?

Will my generation use the news of his illness as a reminder to show older people how much they mean to us? Can we learn their lessons and preserve their stories and show our respect while they're here to appreciate it?

Will his generation see this as the right time to open up and trust us?

But mostly, can we all learn from Lewis' example how to work across generational lines?


Lewis began fighting in his late teens

Lewis has earned a reputation as a unifier, and it goes beyond the reality that both President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have each offered condolences and kind words.

If anyone can inspire all that, he can.

Lewis is 79.

He's seen and experienced things that Generation X, Generation Z and millennials will never know firsthand.

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And he started taking action in his late teens to fight the wrongs and immoralities that he saw in our nation.

He fought for people to be able to use public transportation that their tax dollars help pay for.

He fought for people to have the right to vote.

He fought for sharecroppers to have living wages.

By the time he was 25, he was speaking to the masses at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

A look at his life and times shows how someone so young could become so influential.

He listened to his elders

Older people helped him out. And he accepted their guidance.

Lewis became deeply involved in the civil rights movement after meeting Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy.

Lewis reached out to them after his college application was ignored.

He ended up joining the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and rising to leadership.

He was ready to let loose at "the Great March" and told The Atlantic in an interview last year that he was prepared to say that if change didn't come "we may be forced to march through the South the way Sherman did, nonviolently."

He was advised to make changes.

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"I couldn't say no to Mr. A. Philip Randolph, who was the dean of black leadership. I couldn't say no to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We made those changes, but my speech still came across OK," Lewis said.

(Randolph was about 50 years older than Lewis. King was senior to Lewis by a little more than a decade.)

Recordings and transcripts of the speech are widely available.

We're better when we work together

"My friends, let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution," he said on Aug. 28, 1963.

"By and large, American politics is dominated by politicians who build their career on immoral compromises and align themselves with open forms of political, economic and social exploitation … you holler, 'Be patient?' But how long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now!"

Are any young people hearing the power in such stories? Are they learning from older generations how best to channel and express their frustration to create the changes they wish to see?

Are older people listening? Are they helping youngsters, rather than simply cutting them off or shutting them down?

We're better together.

Lewis' story is proof.

This is a scary time.

We don't want to lose him, because we don't know whether we're ready for a world without him.

But if we can use his story to inspire our generations to come together, it could be transformational for the future.

Either way, here's hoping Mr. Lewis beats this thing.

Greg Moore is a columnist at The Arizona Republic, where this column originally appeared. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter: @WritingMoore.

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis set a high bar with his legacy


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