A Journalist Remembers John Lewis: Whenever I saw him in DC, he would ask, “How’s your mother?”

The AP’s Sonya Ross with John Lewis.

From Connecting, a newsletter edited by Paul Stevens for current and former AP journalists:

By Sonya Ross

For many years, I enjoyed a reporter/source relationship with the legendary John Lewis. Yes, “enjoyed,” because in 30-plus years, never once did John Lewis disrespect or rebuff me. He knew what I needed to do my job and he always obliged, understanding what having access to someone like him did for the professional credibility of someone like me.

And yes “legendary,” because … Oh c’mon, everybody knows he was.

I first met John Lewis when I was an intern for The Associated Press in Atlanta, and he was a plucky city councilman running for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District seat against his student activist ally and friend Julian Bond. I had been sent to gather quotes at a Bond news conference with Rosa Parks, who had been flown in to endorse Bond. At least, that’s what they said. But Mrs. Parks, ever the movement mother, told reporters “they’re both my boys” and she couldn’t choose one movement son over the other. Lewis, who came in when it was over to see Mrs. Parks, delighted in this. But he wouldn’t gloat. Even when we reporters mobbed him, and one reporter pointed out that he still could lose, Lewis simply said let the voters speak, and we shall see.

Outside of work, John Lewis was my congressman during his first two terms. Even after I moved from Atlanta to DC, he remained my congressman — in my mother’s mind. He was her congressman, and she had no regard for jurisdictions. She would chat him up whenever he visited her senior’s community center, and tell him to look out for me in DC. Whenever I saw him in DC, he would ask, “How’s your mother?” or duly report that he had just seen her and send greetings back to her through me. When she died, he personally expressed his sympathies to me as soon as I said hello to him at the Congressional Black Caucus’ annual legislative conference — and I hadn’t even told him that she had passed. Here he is a congressman, a famous one at that, greeting hundreds of people everywhere he went, and he always, always remembered my mother.

Journalists often worry about appearing too cozy with sources, lest we look compromised or biased. But when it came to John Lewis, the great Black liberator and my mama’s congressman, I could not care about that. John Lewis was living history. Living Black history, living American history, walking, talking, approachable, on the morally right side of history type of history. His congressional career and my reporting career started at the same time, in the same place. That made our dynamic too special to be defined by industry opinions of what “impartiality” should look like.

This is why, with no shame, I took a photo with John Lewis on Capitol Hill in 1998 after he signed my copy of his autobiography. It is an honor, frankly, to have occupied the same space in time with John Lewis, a bona fide American hero who was never too big to care about regular folks like my mom on Atlanta’s west side. I am so sad that he is gone. I will miss him terribly, like the rest of the world.

Sonya Ross retired in June 2019 after a 33-year career at The Associated Press. She became the AP’s first black woman White House reporter in 1995 and, in 1999, became the first black woman elected to the board of the White House Correspondents Association. Sonya was the print pool reporter aboard Air Force One with President George W. Bush as he was evacuated during the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, an historic first. An Atlanta native, Sonya joined AP as an intern in her hometown in 1986 and went on to cover the state legislature and the 1990 governor’s race. She transferred to the Washington bureau in 1992 to cover civil rights and urban affairs. Sonya was inducted into the Society of Professional Journalists Hall of Fame in 2018. She is the founding chair of National Association of Black Journalist’s political journalism task force and currently serves on the boards of the Washington Press Club Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists Foundation and the National Newspaper Association Fund.

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