The purity in John Lewis’ heart and the kindness in his eyes inspire Deena Pierott to work for racial justice and educational equity every day, she said.
Pierott grew up admiring the heroism and activism of John Lewis, the civil rights icon and longtime Democratic congressman from Georgia, who died July 17. The connection became all the more inspiring when it got personal in 2014 at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. prayer breakfast at Clark College, she said.
When Pierott, a longtime equity-in-education professional and the founder of STEM program iUrbanTeen, launched the new annual event to honor King in Vancouver, she told her mother that her eyes were on one major prize: landing John Lewis, King’s colleague and lieutenant, as a speaker.
“Two weeks before my mother died, I told her, we don’t do anything to celebrate Dr. King. I’m going to create a new breakfast and we’re going to have John Lewis. I always dream big,” Pierott said with a laugh.
She started reaching out to Lewis’ office but got nowhere, she said. Meanwhile, the annual King breakfast at Clark began in 2010 and quickly became a runaway success — a focal point for the local Black community and its allies, Pierott said.
“People come year after year and it’s like a family reunion. You’ve got Black, white, green and purple, all of us, who feel like we all own this event,” she said. “I’m so honored that this small community event has grown so phenomenally.”
On the same weekend in January 2014, Lewis happened to be scheduled to visit Powell’s City of Books in Portland to publicize a series of new publications starring himself: graphic-novel versions of his storied life and civil rights struggles.
“I kept trying to reach out to his office but I’d kind of given up hope,” Pierott said.
Then, a mutual friend who belonged to the same college fraternity as Lewis sealed the deal.
“Those fraternities, there’s a strong bond there,” Pierott said.
She received a late-night phone call confirming that Lewis would be the next day’s big surprise. For security reasons, she was sworn to complete secrecy.
The next morning, Lewis was hidden away in a separate room at Clark until Pierott could make the big reveal. The lights went dark, doors opened, the lights came up again and the whole room was shocked to see the living embodiment of the civil rights movement walk onto the stage.
“I could hear people gasp,” said Pierott, who still hadn’t had a chance to greet Lewis personally. “I bust out crying. It was just what I’d told my mother. It was like having Dr. King in the room.”
Lewis noticed the tears on his host’s face, took her hand and told her, “It’s OK,” Pierott said.
(You’ll see many repeats of that scene in the new documentary feature “John Lewis: Good Trouble”: emotional admirers gushing praise as the stolid, dignified Lewis barely cracks a smile. Playing more against type, he’s also captured on cellphone video doing a laid-back funk dance to the hit song “Happy.” You can stream “John Lewis: Good Trouble” at home via Vancouver’s Kiggins Theatre at www.kigginstheatre.com/now-playing.)
Another lieutenant of King’s, the Rev. C.T. Vivian, died on the same day as Lewis. Vivian was the King breakfast’s keynote speaker in 2016.
“I was just so glad to be able to bring them there to Vancouver,” Pierott said from her current home in Seattle. She’s getting ready to return to Vancouver, which she considers her real home town, this fall.
Work goes on
During his talk in 2014, Lewis retold a favorite tale about being so motivated to preach as a youth that he rounded up his family’s farmyard chickens and preached to them. They listened better than some of his congressional colleagues, he said.
When he asked his parents about “whites only” and “colored only” doorways, drinking fountains and other facilities in his native Alabama, they warned him not to make trouble, he said. But making “necessary trouble” became his way of life, he said. Lewis went on to become a key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and the infamous 1965 march across the Selma-to-Montgomery bridge in Alabama, where he and other peaceful demonstrators were attacked by police.
Lewis left the audience at Clark with a reminder: Celebrations are nice, but what King would have wanted was for people to “keep pushing and pulling to make our country and our world a better place.”
That’s exactly what’s going on now in cities like Portland and Vancouver, Pierrot said.
“Sending those federal agents into the streets of Portland, it’s just horrendous,” she said. “This is like a relay race, and John Lewis has passed the baton. We need to take that baton, all of us, and keep going. There is such a cultural shift underway now, it reminds me of the civil rights era. There’s no going back. The work goes on.”