‘We have every reason to be hopeful’

Linda Early Chastang, John Lewis’s chief of staff, remembers her boss and his determination.

The morning I chatted with Linda Early Chastang, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s pick of Kamala Harris as the first Black woman on a presidential ticket was fresh.

“A lot of Black women are very, very excited. She is like us. We know her. We know her experience. We’ve walked in the same or similar shoes,” Chastang told me. Like Harris, she is a graduate of Howard University and they belonged to the same sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. “There’s a lot of excitement. The Biden/Harris ticket is a terrific ticket. It gives me hope. I was inspired. I have confidence. And I have hope we’ll win in November.”

Chastang is a former chief of staff and longtime friend of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon who recently died. She never spoke to Lewis about Harris — so she wouldn’t speak about how he might feel about her nomination — but she heard Lewis’s voice in remarks made by Harris after she was picked by Biden.

“I heard her say something about a coalition of conscience, and that’s what John always talked about. He said we needed to create and sustain a coalition of conscience. He said we can’t do it alone. It’s a team effort. We just have to find the team. Part of the job that’s left for us to do is to pull that team together.”

Chastang is a seasonal resident of Oak Bluffs, and has been since 1998. She said Lewis visited her many times — promoting his book “Walk in the Wind” at Bunch of Grapes, raising money for candidates at Edgartown and Oak Bluffs house parties, and enjoying what the Vineyard has to offer.

Chastang spent this summer in Washington, D.C., where she was able to see Lewis in his final weeks of life. They talked about the Black Lives Matter movement, and the outpouring in the days and weeks following the murder of George Floyd.

“He was quite aware until really the day of his passing. Not only was he aware, but he was checking off boxes. There were things he wanted to have done,” Chastang recalled. “He was treated in Washington, so I saw quite a bit of him. The day he left to go home to Atlanta, I was with him that morning. John never missed a beat. He never stopped paying attention. He never stopped thinking about what needed to be done. I talked to him a couple of days before he passed. He was aware. He wasn’t as communicative as he would be normally, but he was certainly aware and communicating.”

She wasn’t at all surprised that Lewis made a point of going and standing on the Black Lives Matter sign that was painted on the street near the White House.

“I didn’t know he was going there — down to Black Lives Matter Plaza — and when I saw it on TV, I called his chief of staff and said, ‘Why’d you let him go down there?’ and he said, ‘You know I couldn’t stop him,’” she said.

The Black Lives Matter movement and particularly the youthful energy and enthusiasm gave Lewis hope that people cared about social injustices, she said. “He was very inspired, and I think his standing on the Black Lives Matter Plaza was the way to let them know, I am with you and thank you,” she said. “[He would tell them] to keep going and pace yourself, and it will happen so long as you stay focused. Wherever you see something wrong, do your best to right it. That was his message in standing on Black Lives Matter Plaza.”

Every year, Lewis would take a group to Selma and Montgomery, as part of the Faith and Politics Institute. The pilgrimage was designed to enlighten the participants. “What John said is people need to be made uncomfortable enough to make change. They need to see and feel what social injustice looks like, so that they want to work for social justice. That’s what the pilgrimage did for so many people. You can read all the history books you want, but until you’ve stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge or been in the church in Birmingham where young girls were killed, you don’t grasp what social injustice means, is, and does.”

The day after Lewis visited Black Lives Matter Plaza on June 7, he was hospitalized. A little more than a month later, on July 17, he died at home in Atlanta. Fittingly, he died on the same day as C.T. Vivian, a friend of Martin Luther King Jr. and another activist for social justice.

“That’s amazing that they would pass at the same time,” Chastang said of the two leaders.

After Lewis died, Chastang helped organize the tribute to him in the Capitol Rotunda. She did not attend his funeral in Atlanta.

“I wrestled with whether I should go to Troy and Selma and Montgomery and Atlanta because of COVID-19, and I decided that he would say — John would say — ‘Linda, you need to stay well, because I need you now more than anything to go out and vote and take everybody with you.’”

Lewis would have loved the funeral service, which she watched on TV. Not just the powerful speech by former President Barack Obama, but the unity.

“I think he would have been very happy to have had the three presidents there. He would have liked Jimmy Carter to be there, but Jimmy Carter is not getting out too much anymore,” she said. “The fact that you could bring together a Republican president, George Bush, and two Democratic presidents would mean a lot to John. The message was we come together when we know we need to come together. The time is now for us to come together. Hopefully that was the message that was communicated by having Bush, Clinton, and Obama there.”

Chastang first met Lewis as a 14-year-old growing up in Washington, D.C. Her family belonged to the small Presbyterian church where Jefferson P. Rogers, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was minister.

Years later, as an adult lawyer, she would move to Atlanta, where she first met Lewis’s wife, Lillian, and then got to know Lewis. She supported his campaign for city council, and in 1986 worked on his famous race against Julian Bond, another Black leader who was the prohibitive favorite to win the congressional race before Lewis came along.

When Chastang followed her husband, a hospital administrator, to Washington, D.C., she first got a job as counsel with the NAACP until Lewis came knocking.

“John called and asked if I’d be willing to come over as his administrative assistant. So I’m thinking, administrative assistant? I have all these degrees and he wants me to be secretary? ‘Sure, I’m happy to do it,’ I told him, ‘If that means I can help you change the world, I’d love to do it.’ Well, I didn’t know that the administrative assistant was the chief of staff. I know that’s hard to believe, but I was willing to take the job not even knowing what it was. I thought I’d have an opportunity to work with him, and for me that would be a tremendous honor. It turns out that the administrative assistant is the chief of staff.”

She worked in various capacities for Lewis through the years. “You never shake loose,” she said. “It has been a wonderful ride for me. I’m now president of the John and Lillian Miles Lewis Foundation, something he asked to be created. Now we’re busy preparing for a launch.”

The organization is not actively soliciting donations, but has received some after Lewis died. “We are investing in having an entity that does indeed continue John’s legacy. That said, we’ve gotten so many $5, $10, $20 donations from around the world … These ordinary people are counting on this organization to continue his legacy.”

To that end, Chastang is putting together a group of people who share his commitment to a coalition of conscience. “They will share themselves, their ideas, their expertise, their love for humanity, and their commitment to social justice,” she said. She hopes people on the Vineyard will share their thoughts by writing to info@johnandlillianmileslewisfoundation.org.

Despite continued racial tensions and turmoil, Chastang said her friend and boss’s legacy is hope and never getting discouraged. She mentioned his dogged pursuit of bringing the African American History Museum to the Smithsonian as an example of that determination.

“When I think about what he taught me, it’s that you don’t give up,” she said, emotion evident in her voice, “You always have to have hope. If you don’t have hope, what do you have? In this case, we have every reason to be hopeful. Look at the enthusiasm, the risk people are trying to take. The investment they’re making is very, very exciting …”

She told a story about sending Lewis a photo of her 1-year-old grandson, Cooper, intently watching the documentary “Good Trouble” with his father.

“He was very sick at the time,” Chastang said of Lewis. “I sent him the photo with a note that said, `Your legacy continues. The commitment you have is inspiring even Cooper.’ He smiled. It was so important to him — young people, inspiring them and encouraging them.”