Over the next days, weeks, months, and years, there will be many tributes to Congressman John Lewis, who passed away on July 17, 2020. Historians and advocates will assess his enormous contributions in the fields of human and civil rights. Here, today, I just want to share how John Lewis affected my life and my work.
I was seven years old when John Lewis boarded the bus south in the first wave of Freedom Riders, and I have no memories of hearing about them. But even at that age I was acutely aware of racial prejudice; my mother had been raised in Mississippi and I could sense her fear and anxiety over racial matters. I had personally experienced scorn and ridicule at school because of my family’s religious beliefs and practices, so I knew some measure of cruelty people could inflict because of perceived differences. I also knew religious beliefs were a matter of free exercise, whereas skin color was not. I was not sure what all that meant, but I was aware, from my own home environment, that people of color experienced discrimination in ways I did not.
But nothing prepared me, at the age of eleven, for the events shown on the news the night of March 7, 1965, when I watched peaceful human beings be bludgeoned and set upon by dogs, simply because they wanted to cross a bridge. More astonishing to me, though, was the courage of those human beings, moving forward even as they knew they would face violence. The conviction and strength of their beliefs affected me profoundly. They showed they could speak truth to power and were willing to accept the consequences. I took that lesson to heart, and it altered the trajectory of my life.
Fast forward several decades to 2011, the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders. By that time, as National Taxpayer Advocate, I had testified before the Ways and Means Committee, and its Subcommittee on Oversight, about ten times, and had testified before Congress about forty times. For much of that time Congressman Lewis was either chair or ranking member of the Oversight Subcommittee. I had worked with his staff on numerous occasions on legislative proposals, many incorporating the recommendations in the National Taxpayer Advocate’s Annual Reports to Congress. One of my most treasured possessions is a copy of the Taxpayer First Act signed by Chairman Neal and inscribed – yes, inscribed – by John Lewis.
Whenever I testified, regardless of which party was in control of the House or Senate, I was a bipartisan witness, asked to testify by both the Chair and the Ranking Member. But for the hearing on May 25, 2011, for the first and only time in my career, I was a Democratic witness at a hearing on “Improper Payments in the Administration of Refundable Tax Credits”. I was understandably nervous about the hearing; the subject of improper payments and the Earned Income Tax Credit is very politically charged and I was aware many people wanted more enforcement focus on the EITC. I knew I was going to have to present a persuasive case for a more nuanced approach, and I was going to have to do that even as the members of one party did not want me there.
As fortune would have it, the week before, on May 16, 2011, PBS aired the documentary Freedom Riders, a film by Stanley Nelson, based on Raymond Arsenault’s book, “Freedom Riders: 1961 and the struggle for Racial Justice.” I had watched that film, curled up in fetal position through most of it. It was with the memories of that film and those events fresh in my mind that I approached the hearing. Also during that week, I had listened to radio and television interviews with Congressman Lewis, as he reflected on past and current times. As I approached the hearing, I kept in my mind’s eye the deliberate courage and peaceful strength of those individuals who created a movement. I knew, too, the steely determination and strategy it took to survive such events. What I was facing was child’s play, but they were my role models.
The hearing went very well and respectfully. After the hearing, Congressman Lewis came over to thank me. The room was buzzing, with side conversations and people milling about. Reporters were leaving the room, the court reporter was packing up. I mumbled some thanks about the invitation, and then told the Congressman that I had seen his interviews and seen the film and that I was just so profoundly grateful for his work. He took both my hands in his and looked me in the eyes and for the next five minutes or longer just spoke to me, never moving his eyes, talking about those events and the challenges today. The world just stopped for me. And apparently it did for others, too, because out of the corner of my eye I could see people stop moving and then slowly edge toward us, to listen in.
The moments ended, the Congressman had to move on, and so did I. Well, almost. Anyone who has felt the strength of those hands and of that gaze is not the same. They impart compassion, yes, but they urge you on and they do not accept excuses.
Occasionally, as a person in a position of some authority, I could use that authority to accomplish something that might not happen under normal circumstances. Later in 2011, all of the Local Taxpayer Advocates (LTAs) were going to be in Washington DC for a leadership training meeting. I had been frustrated how many of the LTAs seemed burned out and were not advocating as vigorously on various issues as I would like them to. It kept coming to me that they needed more courage.
In the weeks leading up to the showing of the film Freedom Riders in the spring of 2011, there were posters on the Washington DC Metro promoting the film, with a picture of a bombed out bus, and the tagline, “Would you get on the bus?” That line kept going through my mind all summer; it made it clear that societal and systemic change starts with individual acts of courage and conviction. That is what the LTAs needed to understand – that despite all the roadblocks put in front of them by their colleagues at the IRS, it was their responsibility to stand fast, and they needed to muster their courage to do that.
Well. I decided that we would show the Freedom Riders film mid-way through the leadership meeting. My staff thought I was nuts, but I insisted: we would dedicate an entire afternoon to the film. We printed up “tickets” that said, Would you get on the bus? I asked three LTAs, who were African American and were over the TAS offices in the deep south, to be on a panel after the film. I introduced the film by saying I just wanted people to watch it and think about the courage these people showed, what it took for them to do what they did, and how that would apply to them. I could tell that everyone thought this was just another crazy NTA thing they had to go along with, and many of the African Americans in the room were suspicious; what was the subtext here?
After the film, there was absolute silence. And then the three LTAs on the panel started speaking. They shared their experiences, their families’ experiences, what they experienced to that day, in terms of racism. They spoke about the quiet courage required every single day of their existence, to assert their humanity and go through life with dignity. Then others in the audience stood up and spoke; people talked about how the film affected them, how it made them reflect on their own beliefs and actions, and also how it made them look at their work with renewed commitment. People broke for the day and carried those conversations on at dinner and the next day.
There were no miracles after that – no all-of-a-sudden people showed more courage. But some did. It was a small step, and it mattered.
On March 7, 2019, I had my final hearing before Congressman Lewis as chair of the Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee. Seven days before, I had announced my pending retirement as National Taxpayer Advocate. At the end of the hearing, I approached the dais to thank the Chairman. Again, he took my both my hands, looked in my eyes, and said, “A sun is setting.” We hugged. (You can watch the hearing here.)
Over the course of John Lewis’ long life, he saw many a sun set. But what John Lewis knew, and I learned from him, is after each sun has set, there is a new dawn. It is up to each and every one of us to determine what the new dawn brings. To mix metaphors, will you get on that bus?