Remembering the caring, loving, lifelong fighter for unity and equality for all, John Lewis, was a memorable time 57 years ago when we met in Guinea, West Africa. We both learned from John’s own eye-opening lesson.
John was the president of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee of young freedom fighters, working with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Another one of the handful of special invitees of Guinean President Sekou Toure in the former French colony was John’s top SNCC deputy, Stokley Carmichael.
The occasion of our meeting was the U.S. Ambassador to Guinea Jim Loeb’s welcoming soiree at his residence in Conakry, the Guinean capital, for he SNCC contingent. As the youngest Peace Corps overseas staff member (1963-65), I had the fortune of confabbing with John, just two years younger than me, over in a corner. Ambassador Loeb also was the owner of the Saranac Daily Enterprise with Roger Tubby, former press secretary to President Harry Truman.
When I asked what were he and his colleagues going to be doing in Guinea, he said he was looking forward to a sojourn to stay in a little village up on the edge of the Fouta Jallon Mountains. He said he felt he could quickly relate to his African brothers, even though none of his American delegation spoke French, the country’s lingua franca. I told him I wanted to hear about his experience when he returned from the North.
When we met the second time back in Conakry, I asked him please to recall his time in the village. He said three outstanding memories taught him a lesson:
n The first meal was a communal time sitting on the floor of a thatched hut, each cupping their hand as a spoon and scooping out the very hot peppery fish head sauce. Not like home and tamer Tabasco sauce.
n He traced his name and family tree from his father, patrilineal lineage, and was not used to matrilineal lineage, like the tribe and village he visited whereby the women were in charge of everything. And the family members took the mother’s name.
n Not speaking French, nor one of the tribal lingua of the village, he used mostly sign language.
I said, “John what did you learn?” With a broad smile and a positive demeanor, he happily said, “I learned I am an American!”
A true equalizer, John was a model of courage, humility and loving focus to reach out to all Americans for all the benefits in a Democracy.