John Lewis: A life of powerful stories

4 lessons journalists can learn from Lewis, and how his life of powerful stories bears important messages for today

July 21, 2020

John Lewis leaves a life of powerful stories, stories that he told, that others told about him, and that millions saw in television news clips and movies. These stories bear important messages for society today, especially for journalists.

Lewis told how he practiced his calling as a small boy by preaching to his family’s chickens. As a teen from Pike County, near Troy, Alabama, he went to Nashville’s American Baptist College and found his mission in social justice. He was 18 when he wrote to a young Montgomery, Alabama, minister named Martin Luther King Jr. King invited Lewis to meet and called him “the boy from Troy.”

By age 23 Lewis was the youngest speaker in the 1963 March on Washington. Two years later he was the man in the cream trench coat beaten by state troopers during a march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. Later he served nearly 34 years as U.S. congressman from Georgia, representing Atlanta.

In my Poynter teaching I often used the title story from “Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.” Lewis and Michael D’Orso co-wrote the award-winning book. The prologue tells of 4-year-old John Lewis, his three siblings and a dozen cousins playing in the dirt outside an aunt’s house. The sky darkened, the wind whipped up and lightning flashed in the distance.

His aunt gathered them into her house. Soon the wind began to shake the structure, even raising a corner of the house.

Lewis’ aunt had the children join hands, form a line across the room and walk together. As the storm tried to lift the house, they walked back and forth, back and forth, the weight of their small bodies holding the house down.

Lewis said the story symbolized the challenge of the United States, the struggle to respond with decency, dignity and togetherness in all the struggles we face.

Journalists can also find four lessons in the story.

  1. Make people see. The story is vivid so people can visualize what’s happening? Gene Roberts, former senior editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times, told of, early in his career, working for a blind editor. The editor told him that he covered the news well, but he said, “Make me see.” Even in our visual, time/space-constrained society, provide the context, completeness and details so people can see.
  2. Help them relate. Most of us haven’t been in a wooden house, especially during a harrowing storm. We can relate to fear, though, and we understand the power of unity. Find the universal qualities that help people relate.
  3. Make the point clear. So many stories, speeches and other communications rise or fall on the question: What’s the point? This story has a clear point of pulling together to overcome.
  4. Rely on the power of ethos. Aristotle taught that a message gains power from the communicator’s character. Is the journalist or news outlet honest, courageous and consistent about values? Is there credibility?

John Lewis had a clear mission; he relentlessly stayed with it; his power came from the credibility of courageously fighting for something worthwhile.

Lewis came to Poynter in March 2016 to observe the centennial of the Pulitzer Prizes. I waited as others greeted him before welcoming him, too. Then I leaned in and said, “I’m glad to see you because my parents taught you.” His head snapped back. I said, “Charles and Mary Fitzgerald taught you at American Baptist College.”

He smiled.

“Yes, I remember,” he said grabbing my hands and shaking them. “I remember those two little girls.”

My sister was there, too, and came over to greet him. For a few minutes we recalled a time of students in a small, historically Black college in Tennessee who sacrificed and became leaders for civil rights.

Lewis and fellow students Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel and C.T. Vivian, who died on the same day as Lewis, along with Fisk student Diane Nash and others studied nonviolence, went to college classes, led sit-ins where they were abused and went back to classes when they weren’t arrested.

Some came to mid-week Bible Study at my church with heads and arms wrapped in bandages. I was about 9 and didn’t fully understand, but I knew they were in the demonstrations downtown, and I knew they and Dr. King were changing the world.

John Lewis’ life was full of powerful stories worth telling and retelling. One of the most important is the one about joining hands and walking together through the storms.

Karen Brown Dunlap is former president of The Poynter Institute and a trustee of American Baptist College.