“I think he figured that if Thomas Merton could find his way and keep his faith and believe in the future, he, John Lewis could too.”
Bill Clinton spoke at John Lewis’s funeral in Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday — and this passage is notable:
Bloody Sunday, he figured he might get arrested. And this is really important for all the rhapsodic things we believe about John Lewis, he had a really good mind and he was always trying to figure out how I can make the most out of every single moment. So he’s getting ready to march from Selma to Montgomery, he wants to get across the bridge. What do we remember? He cut quite a strange figure: He had a trench coat and a backpack. Now, young people probably think that’s no big deal but there weren’t that many backpacks back then. And you never saw anybody in a trench coat looking halfway dressed up with a backpack. But John put an apple, an orange, a toothbrush, toothpaste to take care of his body ‘cause he figured he would get arrested. And two books, one by Richard Hofstadter on America’s political tradition to feed his mind, and one, the autobiography of Thomas Merton, a Roman Catholic Trappist monk who was the son of itinerant artists making an astonishing personal transformation. What’s a young guy who’s about to get his brains beat out and planning on going to prison doing taking that? I think he figured that if Thomas Merton could find his way and keep his faith and believe in the future, he, John Lewis could too.
So we honor our friend for his faith and for living his faith, which the Scripture said is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. John Lewis was a walking rebuke to people who thought, ‘well, we ain’t there yet, we’ve been working a long time, isn’t it time to bag it?’ He kept moving. He hoped for and imagined and lived and worked and moved for his beloved community. He took a savage beating on more than one day. And he lost that backpack on Bloody Sunday. Nobody knows what happened to it. Maybe someone someday will be stricken with conscience and give some of it back. But what it represented never disappeared from John Lewis’ spirit.