Behind the pages of Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change, the new book by Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., lies another story of overcoming setbacks and heartache: That of Lewis’s communications director, Brenda Jones, who he asked to turn his stories into prose.
Jones accepted the task, realizing with sorrow the coincidence the assignment had to events that had unfolded in the past decade of her life. Ten years ago, Jones was working in public relations when she and her husband took a trip from Washington through the Deep South. They walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where Lewis and the civil-rights marchers he led were beaten by state troopers in 1965 on what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
“He was very interested in civil-rights history,” Jones said of her husband. “He bought this book on the trip. He was reading it first, and then he began to share it with me.”
The book was Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, written by Lewis and published in 1999. Neither Jones nor her husband knew Lewis personally at the time. But the book inspired them both, and they brought it out in each town they visited on their journey.
Jones kept Lewis’s book as a memento when her husband died of cancer two years later. She spent nearly a year lost and out of work, until a friend called her with news of a job opening in Lewis’s office. With no Hill experience, Jones took a chance and sent in her application. To her shock, she was granted an interview. The day of the interview happened to be the one-year anniversary of her husband’s passing.
“It was awful,” Jones said. “I woke up that morning and just felt terrible. I thought to myself, ‘I’m not going to get this job.’ I just felt negative.”
To make matters worse, she got a flat tire on the way to the interview and arrived late and flustered. But, to her surprise, the staff asked her to come back and meet with Lewis in person.
That next meeting went smoothly; Jones got the job and has formed a lasting bond with Lewis as his communications director.
“I feel like in the time that I have worked for him, we have developed a relationship that enables me to really sense and feel the kinds of things that he wants to say,” she said.
Still, Jones was overwhelmed by the challenge when Lewis asked her in 2010 to help him write a book about his life philosophy. She had never authored a book, and she feared historians would attack her if she misrepresented a critical piece of the civil-rights movement.
“The responsibility was almost crushing to me,” Jones said. “It’s not like somebody telling their personal story, because there are so many facts involved. It has to be historically accurate.… I would have felt a little more confident if I had written a book before.”
Jones read books about Martin Luther King Jr., theological writers Thomas Merton and Howard Thurman, and about the Highlander Folk School (now the Highlander Research and Education Center) in Tennessee, where Lewis was trained in nonviolent protest. But she still kept her full-time job as communications director in Lewis’s office while doing the research. She would drive to work at the Capitol with her laptop open and ready. During her commute, at about 7 a.m., Lewis would call and she would pull over and start transcribing.
The book is divided into chapters by the virtues Lewis says he learned through his time in the civil-rights movement: faith, patience, study, truth, peace, love, and reconciliation. In those early-morning phone calls, Jones would talk to Lewis about each virtue and the philosophy he had derived from it.
Writing the follow-up to a book that had such an impact on her life turned out to be an inspiring experience for Jones. One month after its release, she can still flip straight to what she says is one of the most meaningful things Lewis told her in their conversations: “Faith, to me, is knowing in the solid core of your soul that the work is already done, even as an idea is being conceived in your mind.”
To Jones, the statement means believing that universal truths, like the need for equal rights, exist even before people go about working toward their realization. Jones is a believer that the universe works for good.
This article appears in the June 20, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.