The 2020 State of the Union speech was preceded by a two-day call to action by the Congressional Black Caucus Political Action Committee in Washington, D.C. The focus was on the 2020 Census and the 2020 national election as well as down ballot candidates, impacting local political power. The Friday event highlight was the election data presented by nationally recognized pollster Cornell Belcher, providing historical analysis of voter turnout and regional trends that will provide some guidance for the upcoming elections.

The Tuesday session was highlighted by the oratory of Bishop William Barber of North Carolina, challenging all to go to the polls as if their life was at risk. One of the Tuesday programs was entitled The Fight for Justice, examining the pipeline to prison system impacting Black and Brown populations disproportionately. One of the panelists was Andrea Goode James, popular daughter of longtime East Chop Highlands cottage owners Matthew and Delores Goode. Andrea is the Founder of the National Council for Incarcerated & Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. She was invited by Vineyard favorite Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley to join the panel. Andrea spoke passionately about the poor living conditions of women and girls in prison and she offered a broad range of reforms. Her remarks were very well received.

But as the Congressional leadership of Black Caucus — Chair Karen Bass, Rep. Gregory Meeks, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, Rep. Jim Clyburn and Rep. Steven Horsford — presided over the sessions, the absence of Congressman John Lewis loomed over the Hyatt on Capitol Hill and the Congressional Auditorium. The last remaining organizer of the 1963 March on Washington was not present to opine on the condition of America at this crossroads in history.

In December Lewis announced that he was battling Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and is in Atlanta for treatment. Lewis had come to Congress in 1986, by winning an improbable election to fill the seat vacated by incumbent Wyche Fowler who was running for the U.S. Senate. Lewis, a former Atlanta City Councilor, was pitted against the erudite Georgia state Senator Julian Bond. Lewis and Bond were the top vote getters in a field of seven in the preliminary race, with Lewis capturing 35 per cent of the vote and Bond capturing 47 per cent but falling short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. And so the two squared off in the finals.

Bond had a strong national reputation and was a leading public voice for the movement and raised twice as much money for the contest. But the voters in the district ultimately selected the person who had marched on the front lines in the civil rights struggle and who was repeatedly arrested and bloodied for his physical commitment to justice and fairness in America. And so over the past 30-plus years Lewis, known as the conscience of the Congress, has played a vital symbolic and legislative role reminding people of his desire to fulfill the true meaning that all are created equal.

I wanted to remind our readers of how much he loved our Island and share some of the precious time that we got to be with this American icon. One of his early visits came in August of 1998, to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the historic March on Washington and to introduce Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement at Union Chapel. The program was sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce and Harvard University. A reception was held on the lawn of the Chapel after the program. The host committee for that event was Henry Louis Gates Jr., A. Leon Higgenbothem Jr., Anita Hill, Cornell West, Charles Ogletree and Anna Deveare Smith. After the reception Mr. Lewis accepted an invitation to join fellow Georgia native Nate Stevens on his New York avenue porch to share stories over cold beverages.

Congressman Lewis has returned many times since then, including in 2014 to speak about his latest book March: Book One, the bestseller about his early life, young adulthood and entry into the civil rights movement. He has returned since then for fundraising in West Chop and other parts of the Island and has paved the way to the Vineyard for others from the Congress Black Caucus including Barbara Lee, Don Payne, Gregory Meeks, Jim Clyburn and our very own Ayanna Pressly.

Reminding the nation that he is still a fighter, John R. Lewis led 40 of his colleagues in a “sit in“ in the well of the House of Representatives to dramatize the need for a vote on gun control.

Very few in our country have devoted the full circle of their life fighting and almost dying for civil rights and then taking to Washington to occupy high office and leverage that platform for his fellow man. Praise and adulation is often overstated for public figures. For John Lewis, the son of share croppers from Alabama, our nation owes him honors that words cannot adequately enunciate.

I know that I speak for all on the Island when I send prayers and blessings for a speedy recovery to a national hero and a Martha’s Vineyard favorite that has brought so much of his soul and his spirit to merge with our own. God’s speed John Robert Lewis.

Paradise on earth is the Vineyard experience. Enjoy it as life is fleeting!