Farewell to a great American, an icon of the civil rights movement, who was respected from all political sides and remained a lifelong member of the Albanian Issues Caucus in the US Congress
By Ruben Avxhiu
America gave its farewell today to one of the last veterans of the great Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Rep. John Lewis. He marched in Selma, on the side of Martin Luther King Jr and became part of that great act that ended the segregation and placed this great nation on a new path to justice and reconciliation.
John Lewis was a great American who will have a well-deserved place in our history. He came from the left, but denounced the crimes of communism, remained a dedicated American patriot, and fought openly the scourge of anti-Semitism whenever it rose its ugly head.
It is befitting that three former Presidents, two Democrats (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) and one (George W Bush) spoke movingly today in his funeral.
Not many Albanians are aware of his great contribution to our struggle, but we too have reason to feel proud about our connection to this great icon of the civil rights movement.
John Lewis was to the last day of his life, a member of the Albanian Issues Caucus in the US Congress. Approached to join this group, by his friend and colleague Rep. Eliot Engel from New York, John Lewis agreed to land his immense moral weight to the cause of Kosova.
It is easy to forget nowadays how crucial it was in mid-1990s to have a leader from the time of Martin Luther King Jr support our fight. He agreed with Engel that the Kosovars were at the time the most oppressed people in Europe, lacking the most elementary political and social rights, openly relegated to a second-class citizens status.
One of his speeches which I will never forget was delivered as he was recognized with the National Book Award. John Lewis broke into tears as he recalled his first trip to a public library where he was turned down with the explanation that libraries were “for whites-only”. Now it was his book that was being celebrated by the entire nation.
America has made a long journey since the time when John Lewis was a kid growing up in the segregated South. He was one of the leaders who forced that change. Always making that “good trouble”. Young and new Americans some time struggle to grasp the full context of race-based clashes in today’s America. People in immigrant communities that were drawn to this great land of are hesitant to recognize the dark side of its story. However, you cannot understand America without understanding the great tragedy of slavery. I truly believe that a nation is not defined by the sins of its past, but by the efforts to bring justice and reconciliation. Indeed, what matters the most in this story is the ability of this great nation to change and never stop its search for justice and redemption. This has little to do with those who abuse this great cause for personal, political, or electoral benefits. Nor should be this struggle confined by party and ideological lines.
Given his past, I am not surprised that John Lewis was strongly touched by the terrible reality of Kosova in the 1990s where young people were denied access to state schools based on their Albanian ethnicity. The Kosovar society was forced to organize a parallel system of schools. Denied access to public institutions they turned their private homes into schools and libraries to educate the young in their own language.
Eliot Engel (a Democrat) and Susan Molinari (a Republican) founded the Albanian Issues Caucus inspired by the great work of the Congressional Black Caucus, where Rep. Lewis (D-Ga) was one of the main leaders. They knew the influence of this Caucus and approached him to join theirs. In the following years, Lewis co-signed a number of resolutions, letters, and appeals aimed at promoting the cause of human rights and freedom in Kosova and the Balkans.
His contribution to our struggle is not accidental. In his last message, timed to be published on the day of his funeral, he wrote: “You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.”
Today, Albanians everywhere join America in bidding farewell to a proud son and leader. His example will continue to shine through for many generations to come. We will cherish his legacy and remain forever grateful for his timely help when it was most needed.