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Like many of us, I have admired Congressman John Lewis from afar. While a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), major player in the Freedom Rides of the 60s, and organizer of the memorable march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge, his story was not taught in the history books.
In 1991, I became the first black librarian to head the children’s department of the Martin Luther King Memorial Library in DC. The library had this beautiful mural in the lobby, telling the story of the civil rights movement beginning with Dr. King. While writing a script to tell the story of this mural, I learned the stories of Coretta Scott King (did you know she worked in a library?), John Lewis, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the 16th Street church bombing and a host of other stories that were overshadowed by our history books only highlighting Dr. King and Rosa Parks. That mural shows a march with the likeness of a young John Lewis.
Fast forward to 2013, I had the pleasure of serving on the Coretta Scott King (CSK) Book Award Jury for the American Library Association (ALA). That year, Congressman Lewis’ book, March One, a graphic novel about his life in the civil rights movement, received an honor award. During the summer ALA annual conference, the committee was invited to lunch with all of the CSK award winners. I had the honor of being seated next to the Congressman. A master storyteller, he kept us engaged throughout the luncheon. I left that meeting with an autographed copy of the book and a photo.
Congressman Lewis would go on to write two more books in the March series to close out the trilogy. In 2017, while attending the ALA Youth Media Awards conference, he set an unprecedented record by receiving four awards for March: Book Three: CSK, Michael L. Printz, Robert F. Sibert, and YALSA Nonfiction award for YA. Congressman Lewis was unable to attend the ceremony but a group of more than 1000 people gave him a standing ovation despite his absence. My last interaction with Congressman Lewis was in August 2017, at the National Conference of African American Librarians in Atlanta, GA. Unable to confirm his attendance, this was a drop-in visit. He was scheduled to leave for Washington, DC later that evening. He came in, said a few words, took a few pictures, and had to leave. My sister San and I were not only able to get a picture with him but also Margo Shetterley who was autographing her book, Hidden Figures.
Congressman Lewis was the last living member of the Big 6, leaders of the prominent civil rights organizations of that time. Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young were the individuals who spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 when Dr. King gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.
I will forever remember this man and what he represented. Congressman John Lewis, a lover of books and libraries, may he rest in peace.
- Executive Director, Rose Dawson, July 20, 2020