My Friend John Lewis Made the World a Better Place | Opinion

John Lewis was more than just a man; he was a giant in the fight for civil rights, and one of the finest Americans this country has ever produced.

I have so many memories of this man, whom I knew long before we became colleagues in the U.S. Congress. As a Jewish woman serving in Congress, I could always count on John to be a strong supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship. His support came from his memories of his own struggles in the early years of the civil rights movement, and the recognition of the bedrock support he received from the Jewish community. He recalled walking arm-in-arm with rabbis and prominent leaders of the Jewish community in furtherance of the cause of social justice and equality for all. John served as both a buffer and a bridge between the African-American and Jewish communities. He helped to foster greater understanding of the goals, as well as the suffering experienced by both peoples. I only wish there were more John Lewises at this time in our nation's history.

He knew how it felt to be treated differently because of the color of his skin, and he helped others feel that difference. In 2018, he was the keynote speaker at the Touro University Nevada Gala to raise money for diversity student scholarships. John recounted the story of Bloody Sunday. His powerful voice had the crowd hanging on to every word, as he described the scene with vivid detail. Alabama state troopers beat him so savagely that they cracked his skull as he and others tried to peacefully walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the march from Selma to Montgomery. "I thought I was going to die that day," he told the crowd, just as he had told countless other eager listeners throughout the years. I had heard that story dozens of times. My reaction was always the same. It was the same reaction of the crowd that evening; a recognition that we were in the presence of a very special human being. We all wanted to join him in his lifelong battle for equality, justice and to embrace the highest ideals of our country.

Many decades after Bloody Sunday, my son Sam and I had the honor of walking with John and many others across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. During the weekend-long event to commemorate the Bloody Sunday anniversary, Sam and I listened as John spoke from the same pulpit as Martin Luther King Jr. We both distinctly remember that singing was the one constant throughout the weekend. Sam and I sang songs of freedom with John and everyone else who wanted to pay tribute to this amazing man and the struggles he and so many others endured for the right to vote.

That day, on the bridge, was a stark contrast to the one John and his fellow marchers experienced in 1965. Instead of violence, there was joy; instead of anger, there was love. Almost 50 years after that fateful day, a day that forever changed this nation, as we linked arms and walked across the bridge, we were joined by hundreds of our fellow citizens cheering us on and applauding our presence. Sam and I will remember that day for the rest of our lives.

Courtesy of Touro University Western Division
Courtesy of Touro University Western Division

One of John's most admirable qualities, and there were many, was his ability to fight with his words instead of his fists. This was evident from the time he spoke at the March on Washington in 1963 until his final days in Congress. During the early days of the Tea Party movement, I watched in horror as John got spit on by angry protestors as he walked from the U.S. Capitol. He did not engage. He did not fight back. He held his head high and continued on his way. He knew he had a higher purpose.

The First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Las Vegas honored me shortly after I left Congress. I called John and asked him to be the guest speaker. Without hesitation, he agreed. That was the type of friend he was. All I, or anyone else, had to do was ask.

Not long after I became CEO and senior provost of Touro University Nevada, John released his first novel for children, March. We were thrilled to host John and his co-author, Andrew Aydin, for a book signing and lecture at a local elementary school. People were lined up throughout the school gymnasium for hours to get their books signed, and to introduce their children to this living legend. He didn't mind. It was another way for John to explain the importance of the civil rights movement to a new generation.

John always made himself available to shake hands, meet and greet people, take a picture or speak anytime that he was asked to do so. It did not matter how busy or tired he was. He knew the importance of his story—and he used it to advance the causes of civil rights and social justice.

John always spoke of the importance of getting into "good trouble." Despite being arrested nearly 50 times throughout his life, he never wavered. He understood that the fight against oppression and bigotry was not easy, and getting into "good trouble" was an important and necessary way to bring about change. He inspired so many others to do the same, and the world is a better place because of him.

It is difficult to imagine a world without John Lewis. He loomed larger than life and inspired us all to be the change we wish to see in ourselves and others. His commitment was resolute, his resolve contagious, his strength unmatched.

We find ourselves living in a time of great uncertainty. I believe it helps to heed the words of John Lewis:

"Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful. Be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month or a year; it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble; necessary trouble."

I loved John Lewis and will miss him more than these words can describe. Let us continue his lifelong struggle for equality and justice for all Americans as a tribute to John's unwavering commitment to us all. Although he is no longer with us, he will always be a part of us

Rest in peace my brother, my colleague, my friend.

Shelley Berkley, a former U.S. congresswoman from Nevada, is now chief executive officer and senior provost at Touro University Nevada.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.