As I described earlier this week, I was invited — on what may have been a whim — by Rep. Lewis to visit him in D.C. I wasn’t certain at the time that the lunch offer would result in a real lunch.
It proved to be much more than I could have expected or asked for.
Rep. Lewis spent more than three hours entertaining Alex and I during a very busy day for the House of Representatives.
We arrived 30 minutes early for lunch and spent much of that time walking the halls of Cannon House on what turned out to be moving day. Alex accurately described the scene as reminiscent of a college dorm on the first day of class. Furniture was stacked high in every hallway as some members of Congress left their posts while others moved in.
When we returned to Rep. Lewis’ office just before noon we were told that the Congressman may be late. We were promptly introduced to a staff member who would join us for lunch. At 12:20, disappointment began to mildly set in as we walked toward the Capitol with no sign of the Congressman.
Once we arrived at the Congressional dining room, the three of us in attendance ordered Cobb salads. Alex ordered his without the boiled egg. We ordered a Reuben sandwich with french fries for the Congressman, at his request.
I had taken a few bites of salad when Rep. Lewis walked in. People from several tables immediately greeted him, including a group from a church in Atlanta.
Rep. Lewis sat down directly across from me and to the left of Alex.
During the next 45 minutes we discussed the work in the House for the day; the economic recession and the need for jobs; Rep. Lewis’ opposition to extending tax cuts for the “high rollers” earning more than $250,000; his farm in Troy, Alabama; my mother and his sister Ethel (he calls here MiMi); his early role in the Civil Rights movement; his early years as a politician; his future in the House; his Presidential Medal of Freedom; AID Atlanta and his unyielding support for the HIV/AIDS community; the future of Georgia under a Gov. Nathan Deal administration; communications in general; and the need for the Democratic Party to improve its messaging in Georgia and elsewhere. During this time Rep. Lewis left briefly to place a vote before returning to his Reuben.
I exhausted pretty much all that I had hoped to discuss during this lunch. I expected to shake hands, thank him and continue with my day.
He would not think of it.
From there we went upstairs to his second office, the larger and much more opulent Office of the Majority Whip. The office is adorned with pictures that would be historical memorabilia anywhere else but are simply snapshots of his life here. There are recent photos of Rep. Lewis with Bill Clinton and Nancy Pelosi. There’s a photo of a young John Lewis being arrested, one of more than 40 times he was arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience.There are photos of a young Lewis standing beside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and one of him speaking to the crowds gathered on the Mall for the March on Washington.
Afterward we joined Rep. Lewis as his guest for a Whip appreciation celebration. We all had pecan pie.
The day continued as Rep. Lewis gave a short tour of the Capitol, ending with a visit to the House Chamber. We sat in the visitors gallery while Rep. Lewis recited highlights from his 23 years in office. The highlight for me was when the Congressman removed a small card from his breast pocket and handed it to Alex and then me. He handed us his voting card, adorned with the seal of the U.S. House of Representatives on one side and his photo, name and office on the other. (In Rep. Lewis’ hands, this card boasts a perfect record for civil rights and civil liberties).
Finally, we took a slow stroll through the Capitol tunnel to Cannon House, where he keeps his legislative office on the third floor. We stopped to greet numerous visitors, elected officials and dignitaries. He introduced both of us each time.
We ended the day in Rep. Lewis’ private office. This may have been the most poignant and moving part of the day. Rep. Lewis walked around his office relating stories about photographs and memorabilia, including a street marker from Troy with Knox St. on two sides and John Lewis Dr. on the others.
Then he flipped through poster-sized, black and white photographs. They depicted his involvement in the civil rights movement.
I honestly could not believe that I was in the same room with Rep. Lewis, listening to first-person accounts of stories that now fill history books. I am so glad I was there.
I could not have asked for more from my visit. And I can’t imagine a better host, a better Congressman or a better American hero.