Rep. Jim Clyburn recalls his last conversation with friend John Lewis

EXCLUSIVE: The House majority whip says the civil rights icon was 'very impressed' with the Black Lives Matter movement

Black America is still mourning the death of civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis — but few people knew him as well as his friend and colleague, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC).

Clyburn, the highest-ranking Black person in the House of Representatives, recently sat down with theGrio to share his thoughts on Lewis’ legacy and their very last conversation before his death.

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I got prepared for it,” Clyburn said of the 80-year-old’s declining health since being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “John told me earlier this year of the diagnosis. I’ve had family experience with pancreatic cancer. I knew what that meant. And, of course, I watched him grow weaker by the day.

Read More: Sen. Nikema Williams to replace John Lewis on November ballot

Respected Rep. John Lewis has passed away. Lewis announced in December 2019 that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. (Photo from 2013 by Riccardo S. Savi/Getty Images for U.S. Postal Service)

The House majority whip said that he and the civil rights activist often talked about the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which he says Lewis was proud to witness decades after he and countless others sacrificed their bodies for racial equality in America.

Lewis notably suffered skull fractures after being brutalized by state troopers in Selma, Alabama in 1965 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a demonstration that is historically referred to as Bloody Sunday.

“He was very, very impressed and pleased with the breakthrough that the Black lives movement was having. And we talked about its comparison to what he and I did back in the 1960s together,” Clyburn told theGrio.

Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), (3rd L), James Clyburn (D-SC), Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Charles Rangel, (D-NY), right, speak with supporters outside the U.S. Capitol building June 23, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)

“We also talked about our fears, because I always felt that that movement got taken away from us. An insurgency dethroned him as chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. We were doing good things. But not fast enough for a lot of people. We were not militant enough for a lot of people.

“We woke up one morning and a new headline was ‘Burn, Baby, Burn’ … that destroyed the movement.”

A new refrain from activists fighting for Black lives has since emerged as of late, Clyburn points out: defund the police.

Black Women Hold "Say Her Hame" March in Richmond, VA
A protester carries a sign that reads “Defund The Police” during the Black Women Matter “Say Her Name” march on July 3, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Eze Amos/Getty Images)

Both of us knew [defund the police] could very well do to Black Lives Matter what ‘Burn, Baby, Burn’ did to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And both of us spoke out against that kind of slogan,” Clyburn said.

The South Carolina congressman said he spoke with Lewis just a few days before his death. We expressed our love for each other. And I knew deep down inside that I was talking to him for the last time,” he shared.

Since Lewis’ passing, Clyburn and others have called for the political giant to be honored by having the Edmund Pettus Bridge renamed after him. The bridge is currently named after former Alabama U.S. Senator Edmund Pettus, who was a grand dragon in the Ku Klux Klan. A petition to name the bridge after John Lewis has since garnered more than 500,000 signatures.

Read More: Why the Edmund Pettus Bridge should be named after John Lewis

I think it’ll be a good thing for Selma,” Clyburn said, “it’s good to have something to break with the past.

“Every time I look at that bridge, it’s just something about that bridge that doesn’t seem right. They ought to spruce it up, put John Lewis’ name on it … I think it could be a turning the page.”

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