John Lewis


John Lewis - 2010 - Portrait, Oil on Linen - David M. Rothman - Birm
Photograph by James Jacobs
Oil on Linen, 42" x 82"
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Birmingham, Alabama
Painting Detail
John Lewis - 2010 - Portrait, Oil on Linen - David M. Rothman - Birm

On Painting John Lewis

Since the late 1950s John Lewis has been a leader in the civil rights movement. His commitment to nonviolence and his enormous courage, including repeatedly putting his life on the line in the struggle to end Jim Crow and legalized racism in America, inspired me to paint his portrait. He is the last surviving speaker from the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. His efforts, together with Martin Luther King and others in the Movement, resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Mr. Lewis, now a member of Congress from Georgia, generously agreed to my request to meet with him, do some sketches and take reference photographs. I knew that he would not have the time needed to sit for his portrait. We were able to meet on August 1, 2009, before the annual Forgiveness Day event sponsored by the Worldwide Forgiveness Alliance held in San Rafael, California.  Congressman Lewis and Elwin Wilson were to be honored, along with others including a 12 year old boy, Christopher Rodriguez. I brought along my then 10 year old grandson Miles. We met and spent time with Congressman Lewis before the event.

In 1961 Elwin Wilson, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, was part of the mob that attacked Freedom Riders at a “whites only” bus station in South Carolina. Wilson, then in his early 20s, viciously beat 21 year old John Lewis at the bus station. Mr. Wilson, then in his early 70s, was present at the San Rafael gathering. Wilson said that he had carried his shame and regret for what he had done for more than two thirds of his life, and that when Senator Obama was elected president he decided that he was going to ask  Lewis’ forgiveness. In February of 2009 they met in Washington, DC, and Mr. Lewis forgave him. He said that, of the many people who had physically attacked and beat him during his years in the Civil Rights Movement, Wilson was the only one who sought his forgiveness. 

Before Lewis and Wilson were honored at the ceremony in San Rafael, young Christopher Rodriguez was to receive his award. He was scheduled to tell his story to the several hundred people at the event. Christopher was living in Oakland, California, when he was the victim of a stray bullet in a shooting taking place during a robbery across the street. He was 10 years old at the time and was taking his first piano lesson in his living room. His spinal cord was severed by the bullet, and he now suffers paralysis in his legs and lower body. In June of 2009, after the 24 years old man who shot him received a lengthy prison sentence, Christopher, who was in court, rolled his wheel chair to his assailant's side and said “I forgive you.”

Before Christopher was supposed to appear on the stage in San Raphael to speak and be honored, we noticed someone came from backstage to get Congressman Lewis, who was seated in the audience. Several minutes passed, and Christopher came onto the stage in his wheelchair with his mother. He was holding John Lewis’ hand. Lewis bent close to Christopher and asked him to please tell the audience his story so we all could know what happened and what Christopher had done. Christopher did so briefly, quietly, and with difficulty. A little later on in the program, Christopher was wheeled back on the stage because he wanted to tell the audience that he would never have been able to relate his story without John Lewis' help.

If we are lucky we might at some time meet one of those extraordinary people with the indescribable quality to bring us closer to our humanity, and who help us realize that there is something we must do beyond ourselves -- who inspire the "zeal for good." John Lewis is such a person. On August 28, 1963, in Washington D.C., as he address the tens of thousands present at the March on Washington, John Lewis said:

“. . . In the struggle, we must seek more than civil rights; we must work for the community of love, peace and true brotherhood. Our minds, souls and hearts cannot rest until freedom and justice exist for all people.”

Mr. Wilson passed away March 28, 2013.