As I read the obituaries of John Lewis, I find myself asking over and over again, “What would Amo say?”
John Lewis and my father-in-law, Amory “Amo” Houghton, Jr. became good friends during their first term in Congress. On the surface, the two were a study in contrasts. A liberal Democrat from the heart of Atlanta. A moderate Republican from rural Upstate New York. The son of former sharecroppers who was a scrappy advocate of nonviolence. The son of businessmen and public servants who was a consensus builder. A legendary civil rights icon. A towering captain of industry.
They met on a bus as freshmen in the House attending an orientation event.
Making small talk while sitting next to John, when the vehicle passed the Lincoln Memorial, Amo remarked, “Do you remember where you were when Martin Luther King, Jr. made his ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ in 1963?”
Non-plussed, John paused for a minute, then responded, amused, “I was standing right there behind him.”
Amo, though embarrassed for not recognizing John, seized the opportunity to learn as much as he could from him from that day forward. I suspect that John felt the same way about Amo. They came from such different worlds.
I’ve asked myself many times how they found so much common ground between them. That they could do so seems to be a lesson for us all today. Strange as it may sound, I think it was the common features of their unique personalities that brought them together.
Both were heart-centered men who listened deeply. Although they both dug into the analytical work that shaping policy requires, their decisions came from an inner space where their compassion and innate sense of decency lived. They each understood the use of status and power but had little patience for people – many of them peers – who forgot that we entrust our leaders with power to affect the common good, not their personal gain. Both were men of above-average courage who had an independent streak and were unafraid to vote their conscience. Neither was interested in the hyper-aggressive command and control models that so dominate today’s world. They preferred to lead by example, respecting and relying on the capacities of others whom they often considered more capable than themselves, while inspiring all to pick up the ball and move it down the field, as we are able. They placed great trust in others and built networks of influence as a result. These attributes not only made them effective politicians. It made them great men.
John and Amo shared another common trait. They were men of faith. John told a wonderful story about wanting to be a preacher when he was a kid, so he read to and sermonized his chickens. (This story always ended that he believes some of those chickens listened to him better than his current colleagues in Congress). Amo had considered becoming a priest as well when a young man. Later, after running Corning for twenty-five years, he explored becoming a missionary in Africa. The spiritual ground upon which they stood became a shared platform from which they both advocated for the rights of individuals who are marginalized by political or economic systems.
And they were drawn together in a meaningful common project. For several years, John and Amo led the Faith and Politics Institute’s annual congressional pilgrimage to Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery. Together, they with dozens and then eventually hundreds of colleagues crossed Edmund Pettus Bridge yearly, reenacting the moment in John’s life that had been so pivotal in the civil rights movement.
Finally, both reveled in the capacity of youth to pick up the mantle. At Amo’s 90th birthday party, John spent a large portion of the event talking with our son Philip, his cousin Jack, and some of their younger kin. John had just published the third and final volume in his graphic novel trilogy, March. He regaled the young men (who were about his age when he crossed that historic bridge) with an afternoon of nonviolent war stories.
Last Thanksgiving, I sat with Amo at what I did not know then would be the last in a lifelong series of “interrogations.” When I first started dating his daughter, Amo developed the habit of drilling me on my work to determine if I was of sound mind and body. At age 93, he was still the CEO pummeling me with questions about the projects that I was working on in the private and non-profit sectors – a transformational digital platform in healthcare, the transition of public television to broadcast internet (ATSC 3.0), reimaging our beloved Episcopal parish on the Sound in Connecticut.
Last but not least, he wanted to hear about a project that was very close to his heart: The American Road. A history and civics education program, the American Road proposes to leverage the social power of music to explain how important American songs have captured, inspired, and reflected the major social movements of the 20th Century. Its aim is to use music – an art form that had been Amo’s and John’s shared passion – to inspire youth to become educated citizens actively participating in our democracy and in their local communities. Amo and I had reached out to his good friend, John Lewis, to help us organize support on the Hill, now that Amo was no longer in Congress.
Three days before he passed John sent a moving note to Secretary Bunch at the Smithsonian whose music collections we hope the program might tap for its historically significant songs that changed this nation. John noted that he was pursuing this piece of “unfinished business” on behalf of a “great American,” then proceeded to offer a moving tribute to Amo.
I read the letter last week and wept. Now the tears continue. With John’s passing, it appears that this project, as well as the work of this great civil rights leader, is our collective “unfinished business.”
What would Amo say, what would he advise we do next? I’m guessing he would “defer to the distinguished gentleman from Georgia,” and borrow a line from John.
“Get in the way. Go out and make some ‘good trouble.’”
Photos courtesy of author