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"By and By:" Professor Paula Johnson Remembers Rep. John Lewis

Posted on Thursday 7/30/2020
Paula Johnson

By Paula C. Johnson, Professor of Law & Co-Director, Cold Case Justice Initiative (CCJI) 

I woke up today humming the spiritual "We Shall Understand It By and By," as I thought about the final funeral service uplifting the life of Rep. John R. Lewis.  

The service was held at Ebenezer Baptist Church at 11 a.m. on July 30, 2020. What was caught in my throat and in my mind, was the refrain:

By and by, when the morning comes,
When the saints of God are gathered home,
We’ll tell the story how we’ve overcome,
For we’ll understand it better by and by.

This spiritual was written by Rev. Charles Tindley, born in 1851 of an enslaved man and a free woman. He is often regarded as the father of American gospel music. Struggling with death of his wife, who died just as the congregation was to enter the new sanctuary of their church, Tindley is said to have mused, “One day I will understand it better by and by.”  

Thinking about the life and legacy of Congressman Lewis, the refrain and indeed the entire hymn are so apropos the celebration of Congressman Lewis’ life. Of course, the spiritual "We Shall Overcome" was the mantra of the Civil Rights Movement. But what moves me most about "By and By" is that it tells us that we must tell the story.  

This is an imperative to remember and live the ideals of a nation and a better humankind. John Lewis lived, bled, and died for these ideals. We must tell this story—his story—to ourselves, our children, and generations to come. 

I did have the honor to watch Congressman Lewis over my lifetime from afar, and up close as an adult. It was humbling to collaborate with him and his staff. It was amazing and heart-rending to witness how he touched, consoled, inspired, and strengthened the family members of victims of Civil Rights Era racial violence and murders. He knew their victimized family members, and he knew the descendants’ pain and endurance. The family members simply revered Congressman Lewis. I never witnessed a false or discordant note from him. His anger and ire, it seems clear, was reserved for injustice of any type against anyone. 

Sometimes we speak hyperbolically about greatness, great men and great women. John Lewis was a great man. Full stop. John Lewis is going home and the nation rightfully honors him today. But if we truly want to honor his legacy and all that he stood for, we must vote and make it possible for all others to vote.  

Democracy, love, and the beloved community—this is the meaning of John Lewis’ life. As the hymn says, "Trials dark on every hand, / And we cannot understand, / All the ways of God would lead us / To that blessed promised land."  

We may never come to understand the mysteries and cravenness of racism and anything that would seek to dehumanize fellow human beings, but we must be committed to continue to fight against it.  

This is Congressman Lewis’ legacy—that in righting wrongs, in speaking out, and acting up, we must get in good trouble. In doing so, let us honor the man and also honor all that we profess to stand for.  

Thank you, Congressman Lewis. Fond farewell. 

Rep. John Lewis at the CCJI Retreat in Atlanta, 2010.
Rep. John Lewis at a CCJI Retreat in Atlanta, 2010.