John Lewis’s office on Capitol Hill resembled a civil rights museum, with monochrome photos in neat white borders and black frames and a TV for visitors to watch a documentary. Prominent in the room was both a campaign poster and bust of Robert Kennedy, one of Lewis’s closest friends and allies.
As America prepares to mourn the civil rights hero who died last week aged 80 with a series of events, Kennedy’s daughter, Kerry, has spoken of her family’s deep sense of loss and joined calls for the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to be renamed for Lewis.
“I loved John,” Kennedy, a member of one of America’s most prominent political dynasties, told the Guardian. “I’ll always miss him and so will my whole family. He means – he meant so much to all of us. The swirl of text messages and emails and phone calls with my whole family when he died was beautiful: ‘Are you OK?’ ‘Can I help you?’ ‘Want to take a walk, be together?’ It was really like somebody in our family had died.”
Kennedy, 60, is president of Robert F Kennedy Human Rights, an advocacy organisation Lewis served as a board member. She adds: “He is my hero, not only in the history, but also his demeanour, his love, his style, his peacefulness, his humility. Just somebody who we all want to emulate in every way. Nobody that I know of in the civil rights movement took more knocks to the head and then got up and organised the next protest and did it all over and over and over and over again.”
Lewis, who grew up on a farm in the Jim Crow south, and Robert Kennedy, born into east coast political aristocracy and white privilege-plus, were an unlikely pair. As attorney general under his brother, President John F Kennedy, Robert Kennedy approved the wiretapping and surveillance of Martin Luther King. But in May 1963 he hosted a group of black artists and intellectuals, including James Baldwin, and received a humbling lesson in how the administration needed to more ambitious on civil rights.
His commitment deepened as he proved willing to travel, engage and grow. That summer he listened to students who endured arrests and beatings in their efforts to desegregate Cambridge, Maryland. Lewis later recalled that during a break in the meetings, Robert Kennedy told him: “John, now I understand. The young people, the students have educated me. You have changed me.”
He formed a special bond with Lewis, a Freedom Rider (riding commercial interstate buses across the south to protest segregation), firebrand organiser of the March on Washington and apostle of nonviolent protest he famously called “good trouble”. In Selma in 1965, Lewis suffered a skull fracture when Alabama state troopers unleashed tear gas, whips and batons on marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, on what became known as “Bloody Sunday”.
Speaking from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where she is helping keep her 92-year-old mother, Ethel, isolated from the coronavirus, Kennedy reflects: “I think the value my father admired most after love was courage and there was no group that he admired more during the civil rights era than the Freedom Riders. He was was awed by their courage and wanted to understand and John’s conversations with him were about getting to yes.
“They weren’t about anger slogans or the outrage that, of course, John totally deserved to feel. It was about how do we get the Voting Rights Act passed and how do we resolve this crisis in Maryland and how do we find a bus driver to bring the Freedom Riders from Birmingham to Montgomery and protect them along the way?”
When Robert Kennedy launched his own bid for the presidency in 1968, he requested that Lewis help organise the black community in Indiana, including a rally in the biggest black neighbourhood of Indianapolis. But when Robert Kennedy flew in, the city’s white mayor, Richard Lugar, called him to say King had been assassinated in Memphis and the event would have to be cancelled.
Kennedy continues: “Lugar said to him, Martin Luther King has been killed by a white man, there are cities burning, protests and looting in cities across the country, you cannot go to that rally. There is no way to provide your safety if you go. I will not allow the police to go with you.
“Daddy called John Lewis, who said: ‘Come, these are your people, they’ve been waiting for hours. The people in the front of the crowd had, in fact, been waiting for hours and they hadn’t heard the news but people in the back of the crowd had heard the news and a bunch of them came with bicycle chains and chair legs and molotov cocktails, and they were ready to riot.
“My father said to Richard Lugar, ‘You might want not to go there but I could go there tonight with my 10 children and my pregnant wife and sleep on the street and we’d be perfectly safe.’ He said that not out of bravado but because he had worked for so long and so intimately with John Lewis and the other community organisers there, so he had credibility. This was not like walking into some foreign country for him. It was like walking home for him.”
Robert Kennedy did attend the rally and, with rare eloquence that caught the mood of the nation, broke the news of King’s death to those who did not know. His daughter says: “He could give that speech, and it had the impact it had, because of the depth of that relationship and trust and also because John Lewis had so much credibility.”
The next day, at Kennedy’s request, Lewis went to Memphis to help organise for King’s body to be returned to Atlanta. Lewis also arranged for Kennedy to meet King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, the night before the funeral.
The election continued. In California, Lewis was in charge of organising the black vote while the labour leaders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta organised the Latinx vote. Chavez and Lewis would sometimes canvass together. Kennedy continues: “Oh, my gosh, imagine opening your door and finding Cesar Chavez and John Lewis.
“They went to the Ambassador hotel [in Los Angeles] that night and Daddy said to John: ‘I’m very disappointed in you because a higher Latinx vote came out than black.’ So they were joking around and he said: ‘I’ll see you in a few minutes. I just have to go give this speech.’”
Shortly after giving a victory speech in the hotel, Robert Kennedy made his way through the kitchen to avoid the surging crowd. Shot at close range, he died aged 42.
His daughter recalls: “John was in the hotel room and he said that he just fell to the floor and cried. He cried the whole way back from LA to Atlanta. It was so moving hearing him say: ‘We were flying over the hills and the mountains, and you could still see snow, even though it was June.’”
Half a century later, Lewis would later tell Kerry Kennedy in an interview for her book Ripples of Hope: “If it hadn’t been for Bobby, I wouldn’t be involved in American politics … I truly believe something died in all of us. I know something died in me.”
‘More than a mentor’
If Robert Kennedy had won the White House instead of Richard Nixon, Lewis’s career would surely have been different. Kennedy, the ex-wife of New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, speculates: “One hundred per cent John would have been involved with the administration. I don’t know at what level he would have been.
“I think the first couple of weeks my father was in the justice department he said: ‘There’s no black lawyers here, what are we doing? We have to recruit from traditionally black colleges and universities and we have to change this and we need more diversity.’ So that was certainly a priority, but who knows what would have happened in 1968.”
Instead Lewis represented a Georgia district in the House of Representatives for 33 years, earning a reputation as “the conscience of Congress”, and continued his efforts for social and economic justice.
Kennedy says: “I felt like he was always there for me personally. I know he was always there for many people personally but I just felt here’s somebody who’s on your side, who feels your pain when something goes wrong and just wants whatever you’re doing to be good.
“It’s very loving: more than a mentor, really kind of a father figure in a lot of ways. I asked him to do things all the time. He never said no, whatever march we were asking to him get in or whatever letter we wanted him to sign or piece of legislation we asked him to co-sign or event we asked him to show up for. It was a drumbeat of yes.”
Lewis also helped keep the memory of Robert Kennedy alive.
“The thing that he also did is he talked to me and my brothers and sisters and my children and my nieces and nephews about my father in a very personal way. There’s a lot of history so you understand the actions but it’s different to have somebody like John Lewis say this is what he was like, these are our conversations, this is how he treated me.”
After Lewis succumbed to pancreatic cancer, he received tributes from Barack Obama and people around the world. On Sunday his casket will make a final crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma before lying in state at the US Capitol in Washington. Kennedy endorses the movement to have the bridge renamed after him instead of Pettus, a lawyer and Confederate general who became a US senator and leader in the Ku Klux Klan.
“I think it would be great because Edmund Pettus was a terrible white supremacist and there should not be anything named after him,” she says.
“It would be a symbol to Selma and to our country and to the world that we recognise the violence of the past and we are going to atone for it and we are on our way to becoming a more perfect union – one where all people are respected and where every person is treated with dignity.”