Cory Booker on the blessing and burden of knowing John Lewis

WASHINGTON — On the morning after Rep. John Lewis died, Sen. Cory Booker spoke with Yahoo News on Saturday about his experiences with the man he viewed as a mentor and a “titan of American history.” Booker said he was feeling “deep grief” over Lewis’s death at 80 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

“Every time I would sit in a room with him or take a sojourn with him over this last six years, I just had this feeling that God was giving me this precious gift of letting me be in the presence of one of the greatest Americans of this past century or more,” Booker said.

Lewis was part of Booker’s first day in Washington. Before Booker was sworn into the Senate in 2013, he and his mother visited Lewis in the congressman’s office, where he had prepared a country breakfast with grits. Lewis also gave Booker a message.

“His office, by the way, is like a museum of civil rights memorabilia … and he’s in every picture,” the New Jersey senator recounted. “So, you have this humbling moment to just sit in his presence and sit in his office. … To have him tell me, try to impress upon me, how grateful he is to see me be the fourth Black person ever popularly elected to the United States Senate and tell me how much it meant to him to give him the sense of fruition of his struggles.”

Rep. John Lewis center, and Sen. Cory Booker, left, in January 2017. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Booker described the moment as a vivid illustration of the fact that he stands “on the shoulders” of Lewis’s generation. 

“I had been given this very gentle, but yet commanding, reminder that, you know, the title was not paid for by me. It was earned by him and his generation before my being ever came to be,” Booker said.

Lewis also accompanied Booker on a road trip to visit former President Jimmy Carter in Georgia before Booker launched his own presidential campaign last year. Booker and Lewis also had a brief conversation about a week before the Georgia congressman’s death. 

“It was another moment where you have, you know, five, 10 minutes to tell a man how much you love him,” Booker said. “So, I’m hurting right now and sad.”

Lewis’s death has led to an outpouring of grief around the country, given his contributions to the civil rights movement and status as the last living speaker from the 1963 March on Washington, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Booker pointed out that one of Lewis’s final public appearances was last month when, while “battling cancer,” the congressman visited the protests outside the White House in Washington and praised the “Black Lives Matter” mural painted there. 

“You can see his body is physically more slight, and he’s standing there with the mayor of Washington, D.C. … on the ‘Black Lives Matter’ words. … That picture, I just had to stop and stare at it for a long time,” Booker said. “It spoke volumes of where he stood, ailing from cancer, ‘but God’s not finished with me yet.’” 

Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. John Lewis take part in a 2015 prayer circle in front of the U.S. Capitol to honor those gunned down inside the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Lewis, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1986, started his political career in the early 1960s as a student activist and one of the original Freedom Riders, pressing for enforcement of anti-segregation laws. He also was one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which led anti-segregation sit-ins and pushed for voting rights and registration in Black communities. Lewis’s participation in demonstrations brought about many instances of violence against him from law enforcement and segregationists. One of the most well-known scenes from his career is 1965’s infamous “Bloody Sunday,” when he and other civil rights marchers were beaten by state troopers after they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Images from that day shocked the country and helped raise support for the civil rights movement.

Booker stressed that Lewis’s impact on his life began before they ever met. As proof, he recounted a tale that he often has invoked during his political career. Booker’s parents were able to raise him in a well-off New Jersey suburb thanks to the help of activists who worked with them to combat discrimination from local property owners reluctant to sell homes to Black families. One of those activists was a lawyer inspired to work against housing discrimination after watching “Bloody Sunday” play out on television. 

While Booker had a personal connection to Lewis, he noted many benefited from the congressman’s sacrifice. Booker suggested it was painful for Lewis to see his “gains debilitated” by Republican efforts to curb access to voting. However, he also said Lewis was pleased by the recent wave of “Black Lives Matter” protests around the country. 

“For him, there had to be some satisfaction that in the waning hours of his life, he was watching a whole nation of people of all ages, from young folk to his generation, that said, ‘Enough — we’re going to get in the way again. We’re going to take on this erosion of rights and liberties that we see in a criminal justice system, in a persistently unjust policing system, in attacks on the voting rights.’ … All the things that he stood [for] so courageously in his career,” Booker said, adding, “The shadow of the giant now falls upon us.” 

President Barack Obama walks across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., with Amelia Boynton and Rep. John Lewis, who were beaten by police on “Bloody Sunday. (Jacquelyn Martin, file/AP)

Booker described Saturday as a time to contemplate Lewis’s legacy and our own contributions. 

“It’s not about our Facebook posts today. It’s not about our Instagram pictures of him today. … We should want what he wanted, which is justice, love. And we should dedicate ourselves to that,” said Booker. “Today is not a day to fawn all over him. It’s a day to self-examine, to really look in the mirror at a country that still falls so far short of his example, of his yearnings, of his fights. We have to pick up that fight. … Today’s the day to ask ourselves, ‘Am I worthy of such a man who loved us so much?’”

Booker said Lewis would want to leave behind one major question. 

“Are you joining me in a nation that seems now to be dragging its feet along the pathway to justice? Will you pick up your step and march, like I did?” Booker asked, adding that Lewis would implore people to “put yourself into the gears of power. Cause good trouble. Get in the way.”

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