As I watched the tributes to the extraordinary life of my friend and civil rights icon, Congressman John Lewis, the power of his message of reconciliation that I was privileged to witness two decades ago came flooding back to me.
The year was 2000, and I had just read John Lewis's book "Walking with the Wind."
While I had heard the story of the Freedom Riders leaving Montgomery for Jackson, Mississippi, in 1961 to be met at the state line by Gen. G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery's Mississippi National Guard, I got goosebumps when I read it because both men had become close friends as we served together in Congress.
John Lewis and I bonded while sharing stories on the House floor about Chattanooga and Atlanta. Sonny and I graduated from the McCallie School a generation apart, and he was the most regular attendee of the weekly bipartisan prayer breakfast in the U.S. House every Thursday morning at 8 a.m. Sonny and then-Congressman George Herbert Walker Bush became close friends at this weekly breakfast, and their lockers were side-by-side in the House gym.
In the same year I read Lewis' book, I was honored to be the president of the weekly prayer group, a time where 30 or so members from both political parties came together in what we called "the best hour of the week."
After reading of their meeting in 1961, I knew the story of my two Democratic friends needed to be shared with the group. Montgomery, the commander of the National Guard, met Lewis, the civil rights icon, and the Freedom Riders at the state line, escorted them to Jackson and jailed them. Now, 39 years later, they were equal members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
I arranged for Lewis to be our speaker at our breakfast where I knew Montgomery, now retired but still a faithful attendee, would be in attendance.
The room filled to the brim, equally balanced between political parties. The prayers seemed to be lifted higher and the songs richer.
Then, Lewis humbly began to tell his story. When he came to the chapter of the Freedom Riders and 1961 ride to Mississippi, congressmen and congresswomen from all across the nation realized, some for the first time, that one of the most extraordinary, real-life stories of reconciliation and love in American history was playing out in front of them.
The story unfolded about the National Guard commander who put the civil rights activist in jail, and how from that moment in time, both had gone on to be elected over and over again to Congress. John Lewis would forgive Sonny Montgomery, and they would become friends, a story that brought tears to the eyes of many in the room.
In the middle of Lewis' story, he walked to the back of the room where Sonny always sat. Sonny stood up, and they embraced in a hug for minutes while every member there stood in awe and appreciation. There wasn't a dry eye in the room. We closed that morning holding hands and lifting our hearts together in song, never to be exactly the same again, because we had been in the presence of the Lord and a giant of a man named John Lewis, "the boy from Troy," a civil rights icon, brutally beaten but not destroyed. That Thursday morning in 2000 was definitely different as a little room in the Capitol became a cathedral, a temple of holiness, love and respect. We were all better for it.
I enjoyed years of friendship with John, and when the Lord moved my heart to name the largest room in the U.S. Capitol Emancipation Hall to honor the process of emancipation, my friend John Lewis joined me to bring the Congressional Black Caucus in full support. Sens. Barack Obama and Mary Landrieu took our House bill through the Senate.
Today, the 20,000 square feet of Emancipation Hall are the entry to the Capitol for more than a million annual visitors. With the passing of my friend, recognizing the contribution of enslaved workers who built the Capitol and lifting up emancipation as such an important part of our history seem all the more fitting because John Lewis was part of it.
What a gift it was to be John Lewis' colleague for 16 years and friend forever.
Zach Wamp represented Tennessee's 3rd District from 1995 to 2011 in the U.S. House of Representatives. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.