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Chet Lunner, of Cape Elizabeth, is a former Maine newspaper editor, congressional staffer and senior federal official.
Mineta, my dear friend and former boss, was pictured chatting with Rep. John Lewis, the famed civil rights leader. I worked with both of them for years, in Congress with Lewis and later as press aide to Secretary of Transportation Mineta. Seeing them together in the same frame, it hit me: These guys were incredibly alike, and their legacies offer profoundly important lessons.
Early in their lives, both had suffered from blatant racism, bullying, violence, being pushed around, arrested and imprisoned by hateful and politically powerful bigots. Both survived horrendous tribulations to become prestigious national figures, in the process casting aside traditional cultural and political boundaries to reach across to “the other side.”
John Lewis, notoriously, was beaten to the ground by state troopers during a 1965 civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. But that repulsive yet historic moment was only one of God-knows-how-many times he was literally face to face with white-hot racist hate.
Norm Mineta was a 10-year-old Boy Scout when, as World War II erupted in 1942, his entire family was forced from their home in San Jose, California, and locked inside a prison camp along with thousands of other Americans of Japanese descent. (The rationale was “national security,” yet there were no camps for German-Americans or Italian-Americans.)
In the thousands of hours in public and private, I never heard either of them utter so much as a syllable of resentment or anger at their previous tormentors. Never.
Each of them turned what might have become volcanic rage into positive energy. Instead of becoming professional victims, they became exemplary leaders.
Lewis became famous in Congress as an unrelenting advocate for civil rights, especially voting rights.
Behind the scenes, he quietly co-chaired a bipartisan spiritual meetinghouse for congressmen called the Faith and Politics Institute. An offshoot of that led to the Civil Rights Pilgrimages, planeloads of Congress members who toured freedom movement historical sites on the anniversaries of the Pettus Bridge debacle, with Lewis as the chief tour guide. He was always open to ideas that would bring people of various backgrounds together.
Mineta served in the Army, became mayor of San Jose, was elected to Congress and fought for years to raise bipartisan support for a formal government apology and cash reparations to survivors of the camps. He later served as Secretary of Commerce for President Bill Clinton and Secretary of Transportation for President George W. Bush during the 9/11 response and recovery.
He oversaw the incredibly complicated design and implementation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) from scratch, and resisted pressure to treat all traveling Muslims as suspected terrorists.
He would always make time for anyone who sought his attention. One remembrance of Mineta from the Asian-American community likened his death to the loss of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Don’t get me wrong; these fellows weren’t saints. They were red-blooded, American men, with a full menu of human frailties. But overall they were positive, not Pollyannish. They had dreams, not fantasies. Most importantly, they lived their beliefs and values. They truly walked the walk and they got results.
Both of these men left powerful examples of rich, authentic lives in service to others. Especially in these times of deep division across our society, such selfless contributions offer hope that someday we may reduce those divisions by concentrating on the greater good.
John Lewis and Norman Mineta did it every day.