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Eleanor Holmes Norton And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Remember John Lewis

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to begin today by remembering Congressman John Lewis, a titan of the civil rights movement and a moral force in Congress and the life of the nation. He died Friday night after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 80 years old.

He was born in Troy, Ala., to a family of farmers who managed to buy their own land. Lewis joined them in the fields at the age of 6 - backbreaking work he described to NPR's Susan Stamberg.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOHN LEWIS: Dropping soda is what we called it because the white powder we use to feed the plant has the consistency of baking soda. We would spread this stuff by hand, walking back and forth along the rows, stopping at each plant to drop a fistful of fertilizer around it.

It was hot, sweaty, sticky work. By the end of the day, your hands would be swollen and sore, sliced with tiny cuts. Breathing the fumes of those chemicals for hours on end couldn't have been healthy. But who even thought that in those days? All I knew was I hated dropping soda just as much as I hated chopping cotton.

MARTIN: Lewis eventually turned to both education and activism, eventually going to college and getting involved in the movement leading to the now-iconic moment on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where he and fellow marchers were viciously beaten by armed officers as they tried to walk from Selma to Montgomery to call attention to their demands for civil rights.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JOHN LEWIS: GOOD TROUBLE")

LEWIS: I lost all sense of fear, really. When you lose your sense of fear, you're free. Too many people lived in fear during those days.

MARTIN: That was Congressman Lewis speaking in the new documentary about his life, "John Lewis: Good Trouble."

As you might imagine, tributes to the late congressman have been pouring in from people from all walks of life. But we decided to hear from two people who knew him and drew inspiration from him both in his life as an activist and his later life as a public official. Eleanor Holmes Norton is a contemporary of John Lewis' and was also a prominent figure in the civil rights movement. She now represents the District of Columbia in Congress.

Congresswoman, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON: Glad to be with you.

MARTIN: And also joining us is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She represents the 14th Congressional District of New York. That's based in the Bronx. And she is a very well-known rising leader of this country's progressive movement.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, it's a pleasure to have you with us as well - although, of course, we're all very sad about why we're talking. I'm just very grateful to have you with us today.

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Of course. Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Congresswoman Norton, I'm going to start with you because you were part of the movement at the same time that John Lewis was. And I do recall, you know, you were participating in sit-ins even when you were in college and in grad school, so you are very well acquainted with the circumstances that John Lewis was a part of. You were a part of them as well. And I just wanted to ask what you remember of him, what you remember when you were meeting - when you first met him. What did you think of him?

NORTON: Well, for me, John's passing is perhaps more personal than it is political because I first knew him when we were both kids in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. But he was the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He - we voted him leader. And the way we did that was not who was most popular but who was bravest. He had been arrested 44 times.

And it must be remembered that these were not the kind of arrests we see today. These were in the Deep South, where John Lewis risked his life. And because he was willing to risk his life, he was an example to everybody else in SNCC that you might live after going into the - to the Deep South. He became perhaps the most important disciple of Martin Luther King Jr. And then we met again - the only two members of SNCC to come all the way from our youth to the Congress of the United States.

MARTIN: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Congresswoman, what is your first memory of John Lewis? Do you recall how you became aware of him and his history and his work?

OCASIO-CORTEZ: I remember as a little girl coming down to Washington, D.C., on a family vacation and, you know, my father telling me the stories of John Lewis and Martin Luther King and the March on Washington. And, you know, as I grew older, and particularly in college becoming very deeply vested in studying deeply the civil rights movement - and John Lewis' story in particularly was always - in particular was always so resonant because of his actions and commitments as a teenager and as a college student.

Being the youngest person to speak in the March on Washington, it really showed how young people can truly shape and fundamentally change the nation. And so it's - his example was always very deeply resonant for me and my whole family from a very young age.

MARTIN: Is there any way in which his career inspired yours? I know a lot of times, you know, with all activists, there's always this question of when is the time to go from the outside to the inside?

OCASIO-CORTEZ: Oh, absolutely (laughter). In fact, you know, I would say that kind of the beginning of me really thinking about politics in a more traditional sense was in looking at the example of John Lewis and the civil rights movement overall because it was really in the civil rights movement where you see one of the starkest examples of outside-inside strategy, where we have all of these movements that are generated to put pressure onto Congress. And it really was a testament to how we have to have elected officials who are at the very least receptive, if not leaders themselves on the inside, to help facilitate the demands of the people.

MARTIN: Congresswoman Norton, can you talk a little bit about - both you and Congressman Lewis have had long careers in Congress, and in that time, you've had a lot of victories. But you've also had a lot of setbacks, and you've also seen things that you've worked very hard for be stalled or in some cases even roll back. And I was just wondering if the two of you ever talked about that - like, how you thought about that.

NORTON: Well, I really am glad you asked about that because I wouldn't want anyone to mistake John's leadership in nonviolence to think that he came to Congress as anything but a strong and outspoken Democrat who was not afraid to take on the other side.

I just regret that he has passed before we were able to pass the Justice in Policing Act because John was always oriented toward doing something. So he would have been right on time and I'm sure was deeply involved in the next thing we're trying to get passed in the Congress after his own work was seminal to passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

MARTIN: Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, is there anything that you feel that you learned from him particularly in the way you conduct your own work as a member of that body?

OCASIO-CORTEZ: Yes. Well, I mean, for me, it was how deeply personal he was with each and every individual he encountered. And his legacy is just as a civil rights giant in our country. But if you actually ever had the opportunity and deep privilege of encountering and meeting with Mr. Lewis - I always called him Mr. Lewis (laughter) - the way with which he made every person feel seen was so profound.

And for me, it was really that encouragement and strength, but also in straddling this line between being an activist and trying to agitate the very institution that you are a part of is always just such a - in - a fine line to walk with. And he would always say, you know, to all of us that we can't allow perfect to be the enemy of the good. And his conscience and his clarity always helped us make those decisions.

MARTIN: Congresswoman Norton, I'm going to give you the last word. And obviously, it's such a great loss. What - and we have only just scratched the surface. I fully recognize that. But what will you think of and what would you like us to think of when you think of John Lewis?

NORTON: I want us to remember that - the March on Washington in particular, where he was the youngest of the civil rights leaders to participate in the march and that he carried that pioneering leadership into Congress itself.

At almost every step of my own career in civil rights, I have encountered John. I mean, at the March on Washington, where I was a paid staff member, actually, coming up from Mississippi to join the march, and to see how John was as the youngest member having to convince the older members that what he had to say had to be said and at the same time, importantly, to compromise with them on the language to be used. That's that sense of reconciliation.

And please remember that John was, first and foremost, a leader of nonviolent resistance and love, that even when he came to Congress and fought the Republicans, he was always able to walk to the other side. At times like this, when there is such polarization in the Congress, the memory of John Lewis is perhaps more important than ever.

MARTIN: Eleanor Holmes Norton represents the District of Columbia in Congress. She is a Democrat, as is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents the 14th Congressional District of New York, which is in the Bronx.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us on this important day.

NORTON: Of course.

OCASIO-CORTEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.