Don Cohen and John Lewis
Photo from 1998: ADL Regional Director Don Cohen, ADL board member Richard Gershenson, Rep. John Lewis, National Council for Community and Justice Director Dan Krichbaum and Detroit Urban League President N. Charles Anderson.

Rep. John Lewis, 80, died July 17, after a months-long battle with pancreatic cancer.

I was able to meet and listen to Rep. John Lewis twice in my life. I guess you could say I had privilege.

The first was in 1998. I had recently become the Michigan regional director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and we were approached, as were other Jewish organizations, to sponsor a speaker at the JCC Jewish Book Fair in the fall.

Deeply engaged in the ADL’s work, and aware of Lewis and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) role in challenging the nation for civil and human rights, I got my hands on an advance copy of Lewis’ autobiography, Walking Against the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. It was powerful and engrossing. A chronicle of intense and critical times in the civil rights movement, it also told an inspiring story of dedication, humanism, faith, sacrifice and purpose. I spoke with our leadership and we agreed it was a message our community should, and would want to, hear.

The JCC Book Fair person I spoke to agreed it would be a great to host and present Lewis to the community. But one issue needed to be resolved: Apparently, a non-Jewish author had never spoken at the event before.

John Lewis Book
Don Cohen

That Book Fair would want Jewish speakers made sense. But, as times changed, more non-Jews were writing notable books about Jewish lives and history. Plus, non-Jews wrote books with messages that spoke to the Jewish vision, expectation and need for an open, free and just America. Lewis’ book was one of those.

It wasn’t a hard sell. The congressman spoke at the JCC’s 47th Annual Jewish Book Fair on Nov. 12, 1998, becoming the event’s first non-Jewish speaker.

It went very well. Before his speech, Jewish, Black and other community leaders had dinner and great conversation with Lewis. The standing-room-only audience and the enthusiastic, engaged reception afterward were good to see. Plus, the congressman sold and signed quite a few books. I have my autographed copy, and he graciously signed one for my young daughter, Hannah.

Lewis was amiable and low-key until he spoke, then he commanded attention with his message, passion and deep voice. This was personal, not political. I’m not going to try to summarize his talk. It was a long time ago. But I highly recommend picking up a copy of Walking Against the Wind. His message can move you forward in engaging in working toward real equality, equity and justice for all.

The second time I heard Lewis was a year or two later in Atlanta with a group of ADL national leaders and staff. It was at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Lewis was a member, and where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his father before him had been pastors. Lewis’ powerful talk, and the historic setting made for another memorable experience.

Rep. John Lewis: Rest in Peace.

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