Congressman Higgins reflects how Buffalo influenced civil rights icon John Lewis

Jul 18, 2020

Leaders from across the country are remembering civil rights icon and congressman John Lewis-- who has died after a battle with advanced-stage pancreatic cancer.

Civil rights leader John Lewis speaks during a news conference in Jackson, Miss., on June 23, 1964.
Credit Jim Bourdier / AP

Lewis spent time in Buffalo with his uncle in the summer of 1951 at the age of 11. Congressman Brian Higgins said when they travelled together, Lewis talked about how formative that time was.

"He said that what he observed here in black men and women working together, black children and white children playing in the Olmsted Park system are the things that inspired him to believe that desegregation itself was possible. And he told me personally and in his biography, that is the experience that made him commit himself to the cause of civil rights," Higgins said. "John still has relatives in Buffalo and Niagara Falls. And it was a seminal moment in his whole experience and really the thing that solidified his commitment to what was possible in terms of civil rights right here in Buffalo, New York."

In a tweet this morning, Higgins said Lewis was "A champion of justice. A truth teller and seeker. An organizer, a teacher and a leader."

Higgins wrote an opinion piece for the Buffalo News in 2018 talking about the connection Lewis had to Buffalo.

Higgins took time to answer a few other questions reflecting on Lewis' legacy.

You have mentioned before Lewis didn't just leave an impact on you, but your daughter as well.

BH: Yeah, John invited us to march with him over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Every year it takes place on the anniversary of the march and this was about 10 years ago. My daughter Maeve and I traveled to Selma to march with John. And among the thousands of people,  John Lewis helped my daughter Maeve and he said, 'Maeve, 45 years ago, nobody wanted to march with me at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Now everybody wants to,' and he pulled her close and said, 'You're going to march with me today.' So just a wonderful man. I serve on the House Ways and Means Committee. John was a member of that committee as well. We used to travel together. And I was always very impressed and all the people that used to come up to him in airports and express their appreciation to him. And the kindness and grace with which he greeted them was very, very inspiring. He was the definition of grace and goodness, and he will be missed. A great, great leader. A booming voice for the rights of all people and was a champion for civil rights and for voting rights.

Moving forward, we're at a time in this country where we are confronting racial injustice in every city. What's the best way in your mind being from Buffalo having this connection to John, moving forward? What's the best way Congress can move forward to honor his legacy?

Martin Luther King said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. And John Lewis believed that his enduring legacy would be to inspire the next generation of leaders to fight peacefully for justice and racial justice. And I think John was very proud in the progress that this country had made in electing the first African American president. But you know, the process of forming a more perfect union is a big statement because he says that a perfect union is elusive. That goal is very hard to obtain. But we have to pursue a more perfect union. That is a an eternal struggle. And every day while we make incremental progress, there is still much work to be done. And John believed that. He was diagnosed about a year ago with stage four pancreatic cancer. It's a very, very tough diagnosis. He knew it. But he said the fight continues and his advocacy. His leadership. His courage. For the rights of all men and women in this country continue long after his diagnosis. He was very active right up until the last couple of months. But John would want this nation in our community, particularly in Buffalo, New York, that had a very special influence in his development as a great civil rights leader. He would want us to recognize that the closing doors and his dream for a free and just society for all people continues.

You look back at that almost 70 years ago. He was in Buffalo 1951. It influenced him, influenced the next generation. Can Buffalo lead the way talking about race and some of the issues as we've seen from protesters moving forward here in 2020?

BH: I think it can. John actually studied nonviolent protest. He was a very close advisor and contemporary of Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King loved John Lewis. And the reason John got involved with Martin Luther King, it was in Troy, Alabama, where John and his family lived. They went to the local library to check out books and they were denied because they were black. John Lewis shared this story in a letter to Martin Luther King, and Martin Luther King joined John or Martin Luther King invited John to join him and they became fast friends. Very, very close allies. So yes, I think John, he was a realist. Buffalo was a segregated city in the summer of 1951. But it was much more advanced than his home Troy, Alabama. It was much more advanced than his work in Selma, Alabama. But what John saw in the summer of 1951, in Buffalo at the steel mills, in the flour mills, in the park, was the potential to do better. And that experience lived with John and inspired his life's work. So the way that we can honor his legacy is for Buffalo, all Buffalonians and Western New Yorkers, is to commit ourselves to doing better and to be better sons and daughters of our nation. And secure to the best extend that we can the hope for a racially just society in the city of Buffalo. In Western New York, but throughout the nation in the world as well.