It was a warm day sometime around the spring of 1990. I was a freshman at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in the Maryland suburbs just outside D.C., and we had a half day that day. At some point, I connected with my friend, Nick Rosenberg, and we decided to take the Metro downtown for no particular reason. Just a few hours later, I found myself on Capitol Hill in John Lewis’s office. I didn’t even know who he was at the time – but I was about to learn.
“You and I were relatively new friends, so when we made the plans to go to D.C. on that day, I definitely had plans to show off how cool I was and how cool my dad’s work was,” Nick recalls. “You weren’t a political nerd, but being a nerd generally with pretty wide-ranging interests, I had you marked as someone who would be impressed by this.”
When we got downtown, we wandered around, ate some food, but quickly ran out of things to do. So, Nick called his dad, the writer M.J. “Mike” Rosenberg, who was then Chief of Staff to Rep. Edward Feighan, D-OH.
“Nick called me, from a payphone of course,” Mike confirmed “and he said that you guys were down there and you were bored.”
Nick then made a bold request, which, if you knew Nick, wasn’t particularly surprising. He said that he’d like to go meet Congressman John Lewis, D-Georgia, so he could ask him about his relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Nick was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X at the time and he had some questions.
(Rep. Lewis died of Pancreatic Cancer on July 17, and memorials will be held for him in Georgia, Alabama and Washington, D.C.)
“In 1990, I was about two years into my lifelong obsession with hip hop,” Nick recalls. That obsession would spread to other members of the family and I’m only now learning how hip-hop played an important role in that day in 1990.
“At that moment in time, hip hop was in a conscious phase. The black consciousness espoused by hip hop artists like KRS-One and Public Enemy resonated with,” Nick told me. “In the Rosenberg house, adulation of Martin Luther King was nearly religious. I had heard about Malcolm X growing up, but not much, and I don’t think my view of him was particularly positive. Do The Right Thing which came out in 1989 was one of my favorite movies and had at its core the competing philosophies of Malcolm X and MLK.”
Nick introduced me to KRS-1 when we saw him perform at the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, also around that time, and he too is an important part of the story. He’s really the reason Nick began to take a closer look at Malcolm-X.
“I realized that the cover of Boogie Down Productions’ album “By All Means Necessary” – bar none my favorite album in 1990 – had a picture of KRS-1 posing with a submachine gun, and it was an homage to an iconic image of Malcolm X, and that the title of the album was a play on Malcolm X’s ‘by any means necessary’ slogan. I was intrigued. I wanted to know more…. My mom encouraged me to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. From there I started reading Malcolm X’s speeches and discussing him with my family. I wanted to know more.”
That’s why Nick wanted to talk to John Lewis at the time, and why he made what seemed like such an outlandish request of his father, who to his great credit, took it in stride.
“So I said, OK, but I don’t think you can just go see a congressman and talk to him about whatever you’re interested in,” said Mike, at which point Nick responded, “Well, how do you know if you don’t try?”
“Because that’s not the way it works. It’s hard to get appointments with Congressmen,” he said.
Nick then suggested he call Rep. Lewis’ chief of staff. “You’re a chief of staff so you can call his chief of staff. All they can do is say no.”
“So, I called,” said Mike. “I said, ‘my kid and his friend are downtown and they’d love to come and talk to John Lewis about civil rights.’ I said, ‘I know it’s crazy and I can just tell them you can’t do it, but I had to ask.’ So she said, ‘Let me check with John.’ She comes back and says, ‘When can they get here?'”
Nick and I made our way to his father’s office and the three of us walked over to Rep. Lewis’ office in the Cannon House office building. I didn’t know what to expect. Nick was more of a student of civil rights history. He knew something of John Lewis. My knowledge of the civil rights movement was embarrassingly limited, largely because of my own immaturity and lack of curiosity, but also because our schools typically limit civil rights education to a relatively few pivotal people and subjects (like the Emancipation Proclamation, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and if you’re lucky, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Great Migration).
On the walk over, we talked briefly about Rep. Lewis. Nick’s Dad told us about the beating he took on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, that left him with a fractured skull and a slight speech impediment.
When we arrived, at around 3 pm, we were ushered right into his office. We thought it was going to be a quick “Hello” and handshake, maybe a little conversation. We were wrong.
Rep. Lewis invited us to sit down, he offered us drinks and snacks (Cokes and peanuts – he represented Atlanta, after all), and told Nick’s dad that he could leave us there for a while. So he did.
At about 5:45, Mike was ready to pack it in for the day, and at that point he realized he hadn’t heard from us. The plan was that we would all go home together and he assumed we were wandering around after our meet and greet with the Congressman. He called over to Rep. Lewis’ office and said, “I’m the Dad of those two boys who came over to see Congressman Lewis. When did they leave? She says, ‘Oh no, they’re still in there.'”
When he got back to the Congressman’s office to pick us up, Rosenberg remembers, “He was kind of sad… because he was just about to show you a video – and he said, well we’ll just have to do this again sometime.”
Nick and I spent more than two hours with Rep. Lewis and I wish I could say that I remember everything he told us. I don’t. Neither of us do. I know we talked about his experience on the Pettus bridge. We talked about the March on Washington. Nick got to ask questions about the relationship between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I remember asking him what they were like. I remember Nick leaning forward, one leg crossed over the other, with a big smile on his face as they talked. Those images stay with me. I also remember feeling so amazed and really honored that this man wanted to hang out with us for so long.
“As I think about it, what he was doing was pretty important,” Nick told me. “Sure he could have been talking about an amendment to a piece of legislation with a staffer, or dealing with a constituent concern. But what he seemed to realize at that moment was that he could make a real difference in our lives by telling us about his work. And he did. The conversation only further inspired me to learn more about the struggles that African Americans faced in 1960, 1990 and continue to face in 2020.”
For both Nick and I, it’s a memory we remember in broad strokes. We both wish we had more details – that we’d written something down at the time. But we were 14 and the fact that it happened remains the primary recollection. We’ve both told the story countless times over the years, and I have no doubt that my memories of what he said to us that day have now blended with all the times I heard him speak, or read about him in the ensuing years.
However, we both remember how he was with us. He couldn’t have been nicer. He was gracious and kind, patient and energetic. He made us feel as though our questions were important. He seemed glad – even appreciative – that we wanted to talk to him and learn from him.
“This probably would have worked with no member of congress except John Lewis,” remembers Mike. “And, of course, he being the only really interesting member of congress, he’s the one who says, ‘Sure!'”
No one, however, should be surprised that John Lewis would spend more than two hours with a couple kids from the suburbs. When his family first spoke since Lewis’ death a few days ago, his brother Grant Lewis told a story about what it was like to run to the store with the congressman. He’d always tell him, “Be patient, little brother.”
“We’d go into a building to get a loaf of bread, or a light bulb or something. Should’ve took ten minutes max. It would take us three and a half hours because he’d shake every hand and take pictures with everyone who wanted to take pictures. And that’s the kind of person my brother was.”
I was able to track down Rep. Lewis’ Chief of Staff at the time, Linda Earley Chastang, and though she didn’t remember this meeting in particular, she does think there should be a picture, and promised to hunt for it. None of it was was surprising to her.
“John loved to talk to young people,” Ms. Chastang told me. “He enjoyed it.” She said that just a few weeks ago, she sent him a picture of one of her grandchildren, watching the documentary “Good Trouble” about his life. She included the message, “Your work continues.”
“He was very happy about that,” she said.
I can only say that the privilege of that afternoon was not lost on me then and is not lost on me now. I was lucky to be there. Lucky to be friends with a guy like Nick, who could so skillfully compel his father to make this audacious request. Lucky that Mike Rosenberg was willing and able to make it happen. And more than anything, lucky to have lived in the time of John Lewis -– to grow up, and older, in a world he shaped.
I told my daughter – now just a couple years younger than I was then – the John Lewis story a few years ago. She asked me who he was and I remember telling her that because of guys like him, it wasn’t such a big deal for mom and I to get married. He helped make that happen, and in a way, helped make her happen.
At the end of my short conversation with Ms. Chastang, I told her how grateful I was for the experience. She said, “What you should know is that he is very happy to know that.”