Over the summer, I felt like Congressman John Lewis was one of the people taking care of me. Reading parts one and two of March gave me a deeper perspective on the Civil Rights Movement and a wider lens on what’s at stake in the current election. During the time of pain, fear, and frustration that followed Orlando, the sit-in on the congress floor gave me reassurance that someone cared, that someone was fighting for both LGBT safety and gun control improvements. John Lewis was at the center, giving me a sense of purpose and forward motion in what could easily feel like a brutal and broken world.
So when I heard that he would be stopping by our local Philly for Hillary office, I very nearly swooned. I was grateful that I happened to be in the office for a canvass when they found out, or I might have missed it—one of the synchronicities that always keep me just a little bit mystical about things. I couldn’t believe I would have a chance to thank him, and thank him, and thank him again for how much he’d done for all of us all of his work and pain and sacrifice to try and help our nation live up to the democratic, egalitarian place it is supposed to be.
Amy found me a copy of March Book Three to get signed. I wore my favorite blue-flowered Democrat dress and left the bookstore early so I could get in a little phonebanking before the big event. We were out on the back patio calling because it was too loud and crowded inside. It was a hazy, warm morning and everything was a little damp. Lots of the people I was calling were getting their second call of the day because of multiple event invitations, I guess, and they didn’t even mind, that’s how hardcore our local Democrats are. One woman told me that she was setting up a voter registration table outside of her house. Another asked me how she could work the polls on Election Day. Even though I was being a pain and calling people while they were a work, they often very kindly gave me a time to call back later. I love Democrats, that’s one thing I know for sure.
I got through a LOT of call sheets while we were waiting for the congressman to arrive. The phonebankers were antsy that we might miss out, but our organizers assured us they’d bring him to us first. I was on a call when he came through the back door, and I had to hastily say “I have to let you go now, John Lewis just got here!” to the nice voter on the phone.
I was shaking as I took March out of my purse for him to sign. I was afraid to monopolize him and didn’t know how to approach him even though he was right there, on the back patio of the what used to be the coffee shop where I hosted poetry reading way back when. Luckily for my hero-struck self, my new favorite organizer said “Let me introduce you to your biggest fan!” and brought him right to me.
So far this year, I’ve shaken the hand of a former president, our god-help-us-if-she’s-not-the-next president, and the president of Planned Parenthood, but shaking John Lewis’s hand was by far the warmest, deepest, and most meaningful. People snapped pictures as he signed my book, and I blithered on and on, saying many, many, thank yous and trying not to fall down. I got to tell him that his books inspire me every day. The local paper took a picture of us with the book and I would really, really like to have that photo.
One of the most humbling and awe-filled moments of this fraught year came when he thanked me for my work—the man who fought and suffered and worked harder for good than almost anyone was thanking me for a few cozy calls, a few sunny days of knocking on doors. I felt tiny and universal all at once.
After he was done thanking phone-bankers, he went inside the packed headquarters and gave a rousing speech about how he cried when Barack Obama won Pennsylvania, and then again when he was inaugurated, and how he plans to cry when we inaugurate our first woman president. He led the headquarters in a chant of “Yes we can!” before he was quickly spirited out the back door and on his way.
I turned to the woman next to me, who was looking as awed and joyed as I was, and said “That was a big moment.” and she said “Yes it was.” And we were together in it then, in the strength of unity and progress. I could feel the project of justice moving forward, even though it is almost always maddeningly slow.
Sometimes it feels crazy to believe in progress. The systems and blindnesses that oppress and brutalize America are so massive and entrenched, sometimes it feels stupid and hopeless to fight. Though sometimes I’ve felt lonely and lost, meeting John Lewis reminded me that if we keep going, we can be a little piece of progress every day. It galvanized my heart to keep working for racial justice, for gender equality, and for LGBT rights because there is such a powerful wave of good history and work behind us, pushing us forward like a wave. The warmth of his hand let me let go of my failures and really touch the little bits of good I can accomplish in this life. I will never, never stop saying thank you.