What the HBCU Community Will Miss Most About John Lewis

The funeral services for the agitator-turned-legislator, Fisk University alumnus John Lewis resonated with the appropriate commendations of an American hero. He was unanimously regarded for his courage, his conviction, his gentle nature, and his fiery steadfastness in a lifelong battle for justice and equality.

But very few people will talk about the logistical gap created by John Lewis’ death. His is the latest passing and example of aging for so many black lawmakers at state and federal levels who were intrinsically tied and accessible to historically black institutions for important legislative matters.

Lawmakers like Lewis, Howard University graduate Elijah Cummings were icons to be sure, but they were also listening ears, instructive tongues, and unending wisdom for constituents in HBCU communities who lobby to earn funding to benefit black college initiatives.

They were outspoken advocates for critical HBCU funding programs like Pell Grants, graduate study and research appropriations, grantmaking for expanding HBCU S.T.E.M. education, and training programs. They, and more importantly their staffers, were hyper knowledgeable about the cultural, financial, and social issues orbiting HBCUs because they lived them as students and alumni, and as elected representatives. They took this knowledge and transformed it into meaningful public advocacy, and hidden funding gems for HBCUs buried in thousands of pages of landmark bills.

Lewis was an authoritative voice of the HBCU delegation within the Congressional Black Caucus, and other workgroups on Capitol Hill. A word from him could change actions in meetings of the Education and Labor Committee, or it could fortify the work of leading HBCU-supporting members like Rep. Alma Adams, Rep. Marcia Fudge, Rep. Frederica Wilson, and Chair Bobby Scott.

Lewis’ death means that his rank of tenure, his knowledge base and his votes on behalf of HBCUs have to be replaced. New alliances and mutual trust between a lawmaker and a sector of institutions has to be built. That prospect is difficult by itself, and even more complex when HBCU leadership changes at the trustee or presidential level.

There are many valuable lessons to be learned from Lewis’ life, but there is a gaping hole to be replaced as a result of his death. And the HBCU community would be well-suited, even in mourning, to honor his life in doing its best to lift his successors up to his legacy of advocacy.