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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘John Lewis fought the good fight’: Black leaders in Spokane grieve civil rights icon

In this 2007 photo, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., stands in his office on Capitol Hill, in Washington.  (Susan Walsh)

Rev. Lonnie Mitchell was flying back from Louisiana where he’d attended his 93-year-old father’s funeral Sunday when he saw the news that John Lewis had died.

Mitchell, pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church in Spokane, said he feels a void over the loss of both men, who were powerful forces in his life.

“But heaven has gained a giant,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell walked in 2018 with Lewis in Montgomery, Alabama, where he was a guest of congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers at Congress’ Civil Rights Pilgrimage.

Other guests included other local Black pastors, Kitara Johnson, chief development officer at Excelsior, and former president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP Philip Tyler who resigned in 2017.

Mitchell said Lewis sat down at a barber shop and spoke about his life, as if he was just getting a haircut.

“John Lewis fought the good fight. He finished the course. He kept the faith,” Mitchell said. “And I believe anybody who looks at his life can be proud of the work he’s done.”

Lewis was the son of sharecroppers. At age 25, he nearly died on the Edmund Pettus bridge, named for a Confederate general and leader of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan, in a brutal beating by police during a landmark 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, alongside Martin Luther King.

Mitchell described Lewis as King’s young “frontman.” But he didn’t stop there. Lewis, a Democrat, was the U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district from 1987 until his death.

“He walked his talk,” Johnson said.

Of the 2018 pilgrimage, Johnson said, “He led a sea of people of all races across the bridge, and what was different this time? Police were protecting us.”

She described that pilgrimage, co-sponsored by Lewis and McMorris Rodgers, as a “powerful and unforgettable experience.” Lewis shook hands with every person, she said, and described the importance of what he called good trouble and necessary trouble.

Betsy Wilkerson, the sole Black member of the Spokane City Council, said Lewis’ famous advice for those seeking social change to “get in good trouble” has been resonating with her as she grieves the civil rights legend.

She said he started young and fiery, but he stuck to it.

“It’s the call to young folks to get engaged and stay engaged,” Wilkerson said. “He realized change does not come overnight and sometimes it feels so slow – it does – but we’re going in the right direction, but we have to remember that.”

Kurtis Robinson, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, said Lewis’ death comes at a time when some are pushing back against progress toward racial equality.

Robinson said Lewis’ death is a reminder that Americans must carry on where Lewis and other civil rights leaders left off.

“We cannot give up,” Robinson said. “We absolutely must never, ever stop seeking justice and equality, equity and humanity for those of us who have been marginalized. The American dream is yet to come.”