Locals who knew and met Rep. John Lewis share their memories of the Civil Rights icon

Locals react to passing of John Lewis
Robert Dawson, M.D., was a friend of the late Congressman John Lewis and shared his memories of Lewis on the day of Lewis' funeral. Photo Courtesy: Robert Dawson
Robert Dawson, M.D., was a friend of the late Congressman John Lewis and shared his memories of Lewis on the day of Lewis' funeral. Photo Courtesy: Robert Dawson (Source: WVUE)

NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Locals whose paths crossed with the late Congressman John Lewis remembered him fondly on the day the nation said a final good-bye to the Civil Rights stalwart.

Dr. Robert Dawson said Lewis was a dear friend. He read a handwritten message Lewis penned to him over 20 years ago.

“In his words, to my good friend, Dr. Robert Earl Dawson thank you for all of your help and support with faith and hope keep your eyes on the prize,” Dawson read from a page of “Walking with the Wind”, a book Lewis authored.

Dawson said Lewis’ wife was at the root of his decades-long relationship with the congressman.

“I met him through his wife Ms. Lillian Lewis,” Dawson said.

He said he had joined Mrs. Lewis and the sister of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for a social gathering.

“We had dinner and we really got to be friends, she Ms. Farris and Ms. Lillian and Congressman Lewis as well,” Dawson said.

Dawson would later host a dinner party and book-signing in the 90s at his home for Rep. Lewis.

“Well by the time he had written “Walking with the Wind” we were very good friends and it was his autobiography walking with the wind,” said Dawson.

It was an honor that Dawson cherishes until this day.

“I admire Congressman Lewis to the utmost and I was just humbled that he would come to sign the books and it enlightened me even further that he would allow me to have my friends as my guests all be there as well and he was a man that walked with God, he acted with justice and he loved mercy,” said Dawson.

Dr. Raphael Cassimere, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of New Orleans, was a Civil Rights activist and President of the NAACP Youth Council at the same time Lewis was putting his life on the line as a young man in the fight for racial equality.

“He was chairman of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and that was basically young people who were involved so I certainly knew about him,” Cassimere.

Cassimere who was involved and protests of his own in New Orleans had planned to attend the 1963 March on Washington where Lewis was the youngest speaker.

“We were supposed to have a busload to go to the D.C. but because of the boycott that had begun in late July had extended into September, actually it lasted over two years I didn’t go, we sent three people, Ronnie Clay, my wife was one of them, one of them is dead,” said Cassimere.

He met Lewis on two occasions, one was in the nation’s capital.

“When we went to lobby for re-extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and of course George Bush 43 was president and it passed and I remember him giving a little pep talk, not just to me, I was one of many people who were around them, about him remembering that march and it would so indelible in his life and we could not allow this to be taken from us again,” said Cassimere.

Political scientist Silas Lee, Ph.D. also met Lewis in person.

“It was a humble attitude that had a very powerful presence and I always say that lions do not have to roar, he did not have to roar, he just presented himself, presented his mission to the world and you understood and you heard him,” said Lee.

He said Lewis also had a non-serious side to his personality.

“The public persona of John Lewis was different from the private persona. Publicly people always saw him as a very serious person, privately he was a hybrid of seriousness yet at the same time he knew how to be very relaxed,” said Lee.

As a teenager Lewis wrote a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King. It was the beginning of a relationship that he says left an indelible mark on his life. That letter led Dr. King to send Lewis a ticket so that they could meet in person.

“And when he arrived, he said are you that boy from Troy,” Dawson said with a chuckle.

Former President Barack Obama eulogized Lewis during the funeral held at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where Dr. King grew up and co-pastored before his assassination.

Two other former presidents, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton also spoke during the funeral as did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Dawson was asked how Lewis impacted his life.

“He was also focused on young people,” said Dawson.

Lee said Lewis made a point to engage with young people.

And his legacy is that not only building coalitions but preparing the next generation,” said Lee.

Lewis was buried in Atlanta following the funeral and several days of memorial services that brought his body from Alabama to Washington D.C. and finally to Georgia.

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