When it comes to the saddest country music song of all time, there are only two possible answers: It’s either “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams or “He Stopped Loving Her Today” by George Jones.

Fight me.

Think about it: Just reciting “Did you ever see a robin weep when leaves begin to die? Like me a lost the will to live/I’m so lonesome I could cry” is enough to send you running for a Jack & Coke or make you hide all of your sharp utensils.

And when, in the middle of a mournful dirge about a man whose love could only be ended by death, George recites, “She came to see him one last time/We all wondered if she would/And it kept running through my mind/This time he’s over her for good”—man, you just don’t want to be bothered after that.

Both of those songs are playing on the Wurlitzer jukebox in my head right now, 10 minutes after learning that Congressman John Lewis died on July 17, 2020.

When my buddy Dwayne texted around midnight to tell me of his passing, my first thought was, “Man, you know better than to answer the phone after midnight: It’s never good news.”

My second thought and return text was, “He stopped loving us today.”

Nothing but love—for his country, for his race, for humanity—could have made someone endure without bitterness the indignities and physical violence that Lewis endured. Fifty-five years later, you still can’t look at what happened to him on Edmund Pettus Bridge near Selma, Alabama without wincing.

In a comprehensive obituary, The Washington Post reported, “When a former supporter of the Ku Klux Klan named Elwin Wilson popped out of history in 2009, asking forgiveness for having severely beaten then-Freedom Rider Lewis in 1961 at a Greyhound bus station in Rock Hill, S.C., Mr. Lewis took him on three TV shows to show that ‘love is stronger than hate.’”

Most of us? We’d have demonstrated the power of a Louisville Slugger upside Elwin Wilson’s head—or at least said something bad about his mama—and then possibly have forgiven him.

I only met Lewis twice. I think I startled him the first time by sneaking up on him at an airport and enthusiastically telling him how much I appreciated him. But I feel like I lost a friend. Shaking Lewis’s hand gave me a spiritual sensation that I’d only felt once before, when I met Russell Thompkins Jr. after a Stylistics concert in Gary, Indiana.

Both are heroes, but for different reasons.

When Lewis ran for Congress to represent Georgia’s Fifth District, many Georgians I knew preferred the smooth, urbane Julian Bond—a warrior in his own right, to be sure. It wasn’t unusual to hear bougie “colleged” people criticize Lewis’s at-times tortured pronunciation and syntax, or the fact that his subjects didn’t always agree with his verbs.

Upon hearing such criticism, I pointed out—promptly, profanely and proudly—that while his critics were taking piano lessons, learning the latest dances, or fretting over which color socks to wear to their proms, Lewis was out getting his head beat in and stomped and kicked so that others would have opportunities to vote or study how to conjugate a verb.

To me, his voice, during our short conversation, sounded like what I imagine an orchestra of angels sounds like.

When Lewis was criticized for not being “Black enough”—yes, a man who was battered and brutalized by the law for being Black was criticized by other Blacks for not being “Black enough”—his response, as that Post obituary noted, was “I follow my conscience, not my complexion.”

Since he was known as the “Conscience of Congress,” that is a perfect epitaph.

Here’s another one: He stopped loving us today.

BARRY SAUNDERS is a former columnist for The News & Observer. He now publishes thesaundersreport.com. Comment on this column at backtalk@indyweek.com

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