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Tested by Fire

A story I’ll never forget… I’ve been drawing on it for understanding in recent weeks.

Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia, is one of my heroes. Head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at age 24, he’s worked tirelessly for racial and economic justice for nearly half a century. Here he is at age 71, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February of 2011.

In March 2011, I spent three days on a civil rights pilgrimage led by John Lewis. We went from Birmingham to Montgomery and then to Selma. On the 46th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, we recreated the march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge with Lewis up front, just as he was in 1965.

After the march, as the bus took us back to the Montgomery airport, he told a story I’ll never forget.

Back in the day, Lewis and a friend were in a bus station when four young white men came in, beat them with baseball bats, and left them lying in a pool of their own blood. When their assailants left, Lewis and his friend found shelter, tended their wounds, and went on with their nonviolent work. Lewis still bears the scars of the beatings he took during those years.

A few years ago, Rep. Lewis was in his Capitol Hill office when a white man about his age walked in and said, “I’m one of the men who assaulted you in that bus station. I’ve come to seek your forgiveness. Will you forgive me?”

Speaking simply and sparely, Lewis said, “I stood. We embraced. We wept. I forgave him. Then we sat and talked.”

As the bus sped on through that once-murderous countryside, Lewis leaned back and gazed out the window. Then he said, very softly, “People can change… People can change…”

I will always remember that moment. Those words — spoken by a man who has been tested by fire — give me hope not only for others but for myself.

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