This is one in a series of short stories I've been writing during my own coronavirus quarantine. You can find the complete collection of fiction written especially for this blog here. My books are available on the Amazon Kindle, for sale or for reading via Kindle Unlimited.
It was followed by the Great Man’s family, by the country’s new leader, and by hundreds of men and women who had known him in life.
The “Man from Montgomery” was almost anonymous in this last group.
John Lewis had started the great man on his way. A lifetime ago. Now the long-time director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and rainmaker for the “lynching memorial” going up southwest of downtown, wondered what might have been.
His mind went all the way back, back to the beginning of the end of his political career.
It was 1986. Wyche Fowler had decided to run for Senate. His House seat was open.
There were only two candidates, John Lewis, and the already-great man. Lewis tried to make his opponent’s marriage the issue. The Great Man had built a cross-racial coalition, the Buckhead crowd, the east side’s gentrifiers, and City Hall’s grifters were all behind him.
Lewis had the preachers of the south side and the west side. It wasn’t going to be enough.
Lewis never knew if the pee sample was that of the Great Man. But it was clean.
Lewis lost by 5 points. He’d taken the big risk and lost.
Lewis had been a thorn in the side of Andrew Young on the City Council. Young was glad to be rid of him. As every power broker in town rushed to embrace the Great Man, Lewis was alone for the first time in his life.
Alabama was where it had all started. Alabama was where he’d been born. Alabama was where the Bridge was, where he was very nearly killed. Alabama was Dexter Street Baptist, Dr. King’s first parish. He had left Alabama for Morehouse College nearly three decades before, but now it was time for John Lewis to come home.
He returned to the city in January, just in time to watch Guy Hunt be inaugurated, the first Republican governor in the state’s history. But that wasn’t the day’s headline. It was the embrace Lewis gave Hunt’s predecessor. He reached down toward the wheelchair, and George Wallace put all the strength he had left into his arms and rose for him. Both men wept together. The picture went around the world.
Wallace wasn’t Wallace anymore. He had changed. He had been elected to this last term with 90% of the black vote. All John Lewis wanted to do was acknowledge that.
But it was a remarkable piece of theater. John Lewis had always known theater, and moments. This hug was the start of a new era for Alabama. Lewis would watch it from the sidelines. He would nudge his fellow citizens toward the good. His candidates would win some elections and lose more. But under President Clinton, whom Lewis personally lobbied, big contracts began coming to Alabama-Birmingham, to Alabama State, and to Troy State in Lewis’ hometown. The contracts created spin-offs, new companies that grew fast, that attracted talent from out of state.
Lewis was the drum major. Lewis vouched for Alabama, Washington supported a new kind of Alabama, and gradually Alabama changed. The state’s population in 2015 was 6 million, it was now catching up with Georgia, which had 8 million, and half of its congresspeople were black Democrats. These were real Democrats, liberal Democrats. Democrats organized as Wallace Clubs, except in black precincts, where they were known as Lewis clubs.
John Lewis was proud of what he had built for himself. But he knew it was nothing like the life of the Great Man.
Julian Bond had always been the chosen one. The son of a university president, tall and light skinned, eloquent and charming. He was the first black elected to the State Senate, the first nominated for Vice President. He was already a legend when he took on John Lewis.
After winning the 5th CD race he didn’t look back.
When Fowler decided to retire after his 1992 re-election and become Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State. Clinton made a phone call, and Julian Bond was selected as his replacement, with Maynard Jackson taking Bond’s place in the House. Once in Washington, Mayor Jackson began losing weight. He began walking, then running. The grandson of The Grand was still alive, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, walking in the front rank behind the casket.
Everyone knew the rest of the story. Bond was re-elected twice, eventually chairing Foreign Relations. He became the country’s first black President in 2008. He got the economy back on track, and he didn’t forget where he came from. Half his cabinet was black. So were a quarter of his judicial nominees. BondCare, his plan to expand Medicare by letting any family pay for Medicare coverage, now covered half of all Americans. Insurers like United Health were administering it under contract and weren’t kicking about it. The 2014 election saw Democratic gains in both Houses.
When the Great Man chose to take a quiet vacation in Florida that summer, no one thought anything of it. Ironically, it was the same cardiovascular disease that nearly killed Jackson, combined with the exhaustion of leading the country, that killed him, age 75. The body had been returned to Washington, had lain in state for two days, had been mourned by millions, and now was being taken to Arlington, to be buried just yards away from Bond’s political hero, John F. Kennedy.
Lewis spotted a familiar face in the crowd as they approached the bridge and sidled over. “Senator” he said, in an accent even more redolent of his south Alabama roots than ever. “A sad day. Think you might challenge the President next year?”
The younger man smiled, a broad, toothy, full-faced grin. “Not a chance,” said Sen. Barack Obama. “Bill Clinton’s so happy being First Lady.” Both men laughed.