A message from Dean Douglas Elmendorf

The United States and the world have lost one of the great public leaders of our time. I am deeply saddened by the death of Congressman John Lewis, who passed away yesterday, of cancer, at the age of 80. I and everyone who cares about and works for justice will miss John Lewis.

Congressman Lewis fought his entire life for civil rights and against anti-Black racism. He fought with stirring moral clarity: He stressed that all people deserve freedom and justice, and for 60 years, he spoke out again and again when people in this country and others were denied their basic human rights. He fought with remarkable personal courage: He was repeatedly beaten, harassed, arrested, jailed, and attacked, but he kept seeking ways to make a difference through “good trouble, necessary trouble,” as he called it.

John Lewis graced Harvard University on a number of occasions, including in 2012 when he received an honorary degree, and in 2016 when he joined President Drew Faust for the unveiling of a plaque at Wadsworth House recognizing four enslaved persons who had worked there for the University’s presidents.

In 2017, the Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership presented Congressman Lewis with its Gleitsman Activist Award, an award that has been given as well to Tarana Burke, Malala Yousafzai, Bryan Stevenson, Nelson Mandela (in whose honor Mandela Day is celebrated every year on today’s date), and other exceptional people who have sparked positive social change. We presented the award at an event in the Kennedy School Forum moderated by Nancy Koehn, who is a professor at Harvard Business School and a faculty adviser to CPL, and ImeIme Umana, who was a Sheila C. Johnson Fellow at CPL while pursuing her MPP and JD degrees and serving as the president (and the first Black female president) of the Harvard Law Review.

In my welcome to the Forum event, I said: “Through his words and his actions, both before entering Congress and since that time, Congressman Lewis has set such an important example of courageous, determined, and thoughtful leadership. I know of no one who has worked more tirelessly or more effectively, as a citizen and as an elected official, to make our country better.” In his own introduction, Professor David Gergen, then the director of CPL, said “John Lewis has dedicated his life to activism on behalf of human rights, always with extraordinary courage, fierce determination, and a capacity to inspire others.”

In the following year, Congressman Lewis gave the Commencement address to Harvard’s Class of 2018. He said in his remarks: “My philosophy is very simple. When you see something that’s not right, not fair, not just, stand up, say something, and speak out.” He called on the graduating students to take their own stands, telling them: “You must lead. You’re never too young to lead. You’re never too old to lead. We need your leadership now more than ever before.”

I started this message by writing that we have lost a great public leader. As I noted, we have indeed lost John Lewis’s direct voice and actions, and we are much poorer for that loss. But we have not lost John Lewis’s example, nor will we ever.

In awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Congressman Lewis in 2011, President Barack Obama said that Congressman Lewis “faced down death so that all of us could share equally in the joys of life. It’s why all these years later, he is known as the Conscience of the United States Congress, still speaking his mind on issues of justice and equality. And generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind—an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time; whose life is a lesson in the fierce urgency of now.”

I hope that John Lewis’s moral clarity and personal courage will continue to challenge and inspire us all.