John, Johnny and hope for democracy

Published 5:53 pm Thursday, July 23, 2020

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It was like a scene from the conclusion of an epic movie, as Rep. John Lewis gave a bear hug to retiring Sen. Johnny Isakson in December. It showed the potential for racial unity and bipartisanship, but also a rebirth of democracy.

At that moment, Democrat Lewis praised his Republican colleague for his willingness to listen.

“Johnny developed a great reputation as a bridge-builder, a man who has strong belief but also willing to work with others to get things done,” Lewis said.

You could almost hear John Williams conducting the orchestra in the background.

It wasn’t some isolated incident for Lewis. When he came to LaGrange College, the national media swarmed over the event, as did many in West Georgia. I got to attend his press conference. Reporters were begging him to continue his feud with President Trump. But he refused, embracing the high road, leading by example for my students. I asked him what he thought of the lynching apology LaGrange held. He told me he was impressed, and he had never heard of such an event.

Lewis rarely shielded himself, despite being a civil rights icon. He met with kids during that visit. I have stories of students over the years who shook his hand, got a book signed, and one who even sat in his office chair. But rather than being just a photo-op, he also had a good lesson, telling us not to accept the status quo.

It was harder to meet with Sen. Johnny Isakson, as Parkinson’s Disease attacked him. At the Chamber of Commerce meeting in Macon, he spent his strength speaking, physically drained later as a student and I met him, though his mind was sharp.

His health kept him from making a visit to our campus, but nearly every year, Sen. Isakson would Skype with my class, filling our auditorium, winning the respect of nearly all with his candor and commitment to bipartisanship. In his last call with us, Isakson documented that retirement embrace from Lewis. The senator also talked about his support for hate crimes legislation, something my students took to heart.

There’s one more issue that united them: their commitment to voting rights. At Isakson’s retirement, Lewis said: “Senator, you not only supported the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, but a few years later, you even co-led the congressional delegation to Selma, Alabama. I want to say thank you.”

If you looked up to Lewis, admire Isakson, honor what they stood for and contact your legislator, and state legislators, to tell them to support legislation that expands the ability of people to vote in elections (