Remembering John Lewis

Congressman John Lewis visited The Phillips Collection in May 2008 during the whirlwind first months of my tenure as director of the museum. He joined me and curator Elsa Smithgall along with National Endowment for the Arts Chair Dana Gioia to view our installation of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series. He also generously made time to talk to some of the students with whom we work. What an impression he made on all of us.

NEA Chair Dana Gioia, Dorothy Kosinski, Congressman John Lewis, and Curator Elsa Smithgall with Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series

Congressman John Lewis speaks with students in the auditorium

Congressman Lewis was friends with artist Benny Andrews (1930-2006). We are honored to have in the Phillips’s collection Andrews’s magnificent Trail of Tears, thanks to the incredible generosity of Agnes Gund. Andrews produced collages and ink drawings for the 2006 publication John Lewis in the Lead: A Story of the Civil Rights Movement by Jim Haskins ad Kathleen Benson. Later, in 2013, Lewis wrote a foreword for the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition Benny Andrews: There Must Be a Heaven at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York City. Lewis’s words about Andrews capture the ethical compass of his life:

Benny Andrews, Trail of Tears (Trail of Tears Series and Migrant Series), 2006, Oil on four canvases with painted fabric and mixed media collage, 76 x 145 x 1 in., Gift of Agnes Gund, 2019

“You see, for Benny, like all of us who were involved in non-violent direct action, protest is an act of love, not one of anger. Through all the jailings, beatings, protests, and prayers of the Civil Rights Movement, we always had ‘this basic idea,’ as Benny so appropriately put it, ‘that good would overcome evil.’ And it is from that place that we offered our complaint. Our desire was not to condemn, but to appeal to the better angels of all humanity. We demonstrated what was wrong to awaken that divine spark that resides in all of us with the power to build and not tear down, to reconcile and not divide, to love and not hate. This critique is an invitation to build a better world based on simple justice that values the dignity and the worth of every human being.”

We mourn Congressman Lewis’s passing and honor his lifelong work for and devotion to equity and justice.

Leave a Reply