Remembering Congressman John Lewis

One of the unexpected pleasures of writing the McCollough family history book is “meeting” other descendants of Captain John and Elizabeth McCollough. Our extended family are scattered far and wide across the United States. Rick and I both worked for the Department of the Interior. Rick worked for the National Park Service and myself for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Rick’s career at the National Park Service took him to Atlanta in 1979. There he worked on projects in Atlanta and the Southeast, particularly in getting Congress to establish new Park Service units, and provide funds for developing visitor facilities for areas associated with African American history themes. This is how Rick met Congressman John Lewis, Coretta Scott King, many of those involved in the Selma-To-Montgomery Voting Rights March, and the Tuskegee Airmen. He also worked with Wally Schirra, one of the original seven Mercury Astronauts on a Man-In-Space Theme Study. The study looked at all of the sites and facilities that played key roles in landing men on the moon in 1969.

Last week at John Lewis’ funeral, President Barack Obama said that Representative John Lewis will become a founding father of a better America. Our McCollough ancestors likely met some of America’s founding fathers. Captain John McCollough’s uncle Adam Weaver spent the winter of 1777-1778 with George Washington at Valley Forge. Captain John’s grandfather, Gerhardt Fiscus, was an indentured servant as a tailor in Philadelphia in the 1740s. The Fiscus family says that he made clothing for Benjamin Franklin and his family.

I hope you are inspired by Rick McCollough’s remembrances of John Lewis written on July 18, 2020.

I did not sleep well last night. That’s because just before we went to bed, we heard that Congressman John Lewis had passed away at the age of 80.

Rising from the son of a sharecropper to become one of our most important civil rights leaders, his work spanned more than 60 years. He was one-of-a-kind, a true American treasure.  So humble, so kind, so calm in the face of adversity. He was a positive presence in any situation, full of humility and grace. 

I had the pleasure of working with John on several projects late in my career with the National Park Service.  These projects included establishing and developing visitor facilities for the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in John’s home state of Alabama, the Selma-To-Montgomery National Historic Trail, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park in downtown Atlanta.

John was a vibrant supporter of each of these important projects, and without his involvement they very likely would not have reached the level of success that we see today in telling these important stories for the American people.

With the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games rapidly approaching, Atlanta’s efforts to put on its best face for the world included providing facilities commemorating the life and work of one of its most famous sons, and a close associate with Lewis in the movement, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. King was even better known in other countries than in the U.S., and visitors from across the globe would expect to visit his memorial during the games. Congressman Lewis became instrumental in ensuring the necessary funds from Congress for the development of a new visitor center, interpretive exhibits and other facilities at the historical park.

At a critical moment, in the midst of the King family’s efforts to scuttle the project and build their own museum, John Lewis supported the National Park Service and helped save the project. Without his support and direct involvement, the project could not have been completed.

When the new visitor center was completed and John came for a tour, I saw tears in his eyes – happy tears — to see Dr. King’s life and work in the civil rights movement so well explained through exhibits in the new visitor center. It was a true honor for me to work with him, shake his hand, and receive his heartfelt appreciation. The “thank you” letter from John today hangs proudly in our home.

In 2000, at the 35th anniversary remembrance of the Selma-To-Montgomery Voting Rights March, I walked with him and others across the Selma bridge named after the KKK leader, Edmund Pettus. The bridge was the site of the “Bloody Sunday Massacre,” where John Lewis and other peaceful marchers were attacked and beaten by Alabama State Police as they attempted to begin the march to the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery. John always answered brutal violence with courageous hope and nonviolent protest.

John Lewis preached and practiced nonviolence, and was always outspoken in his support of justice.   He liked to say “We must keep our eyes on the prize.” The prize of course being the obtainment of equal rights for all Americans regardless of the color of their skin. His life truly represents the triumph of love over hate, and the quest to make our nation more just.  

His passing leaves much work still to be done as evidenced by the events of recent weeks. And we will always remember his mantra to go and “make good trouble.”

John, May God Bless you, and may He rest your soul in peace.

        Rick McCollough

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