John Lewis may be gone, but he’s far from forgotten by the countless inspired by his life’s work. Avis LaGrange is among them.
July marked the death of Lewis, a longtime Congressman and towering icon of the civil rights movement. LaGrange, a social worker for more than 30 years, is among those fortunate enough to have crossed Lewis’ path – he was guest speaker at a national conference based in Atlanta in 2002, on a night she was honored for her accomplishments in her own field.
Lewis had a charisma that set him apart, the Hahnville woman recalled.
“He was an amazing person, one of those people you never forget,” she said. “He was incredibly personable, and stayed afterwards to take pictures with everyone. You would never have known how accomplished or important he was by how he carried himself, because he was like the man next door and spoke to everyone as his equal.
“He was one of those giants. As a younger social worker at the time … sometimes you just don’t know who you’re standing next to or have that full appreciation. Looking back, I’m so thankful to have had that opportunity.”
Lewis was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in December of last year. He died July 17 in Atlanta at the age of 80.
He served in the House of Representatives for Georgia’s fifth congressional district from 1987 until his death. Lewis began making an impact long before that, however. He was a member of the Big Six leaders of prominent civil rights organizations instrumental in the organization of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. He was one of 13 original members of the Freedom Riders, activists who rode interstate buses into segregated states to challenge the non-enforcement of Supreme Court decisions that ruled the segregation of public buses unconstitutional.
Lewis was arrested more than 40 times for demonstrating against racial and social injustice, coining the phrase “good trouble” in reference to organized protests, sit-ins and other activities aimed at fostering equality. Resistance to those efforts turned violent at times – he sustained a fractured skull during a march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965 as result of police violence. The incident went on to be pivotal, garnering support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that prohibited racial discrimination in voting.
“20 years (after she met him), seeing how he’s continued a fight he’s carried on his entire life … being ill and still continuing to stand up for what’s right, my appreciation for him has become more pronounced,” said LaGrange, who has a copy of Lewis’ book Walking with the Wind that he signed upon their meeting. “He’s dedicated his life to this and is one of those people who stood out above the rest and has been able to inspire so many people to stand for what is right.”
She recalled his speech at the 2002 conference in which Lewis spoke of his humble beginnings.
“The chickens in the yard, all these things he spoke of that I could relate to, because I grew up, we’d visit my grandparents and they had chickens and all of those things … he knew people’s plight, because he lived it, I suppose,” LaGrange said. “I was just enthralled with his speech. His story is really so amazing.”
It’s perhaps likely LaGrange also related so much to Lewis as she is one who has long put others first. An oncology social worker, she called her work a spiritual calling.
“God wants us to help others, and I believe we’re supposed to help one another every day,” said LaGrange. “In any capacity you can … it’s been my passion to do that. I’ve had the fortune to work with incredible people in cancer care. I’ve worked in hospice care. When people really need you, I’ve always wanted to do what I can to provide for them.”
It’s a trait that’s been ingrained in her from a young age. One of five children, she lost her father when she was just 12 years old. She and her siblings have gone through hard times, but those beginnings, she said, helped her develop that appreciation for lending a helping hand.
She pointed to a lesson taken from her own family. LaGrange’s grandfather was born in 1889. He and his first wife adopted a child whose needed a home.
“They were black farmers, poor, and they adopt a child who needed a home,” she said. “In the end, what you do for others is all there is. Nobody is going to care what kind of house you live in or how much money you have, when your time comes. It’s a gift to be able to help others.”