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Alpha Rho Brother Robert Lee Cole (Spring 1986) Reflects On His 37-Year Friendship With Congressman

California Colleagues and Robert Cole, an L.A.-Based Family Friend, Remember Rep. John R. Lewis

From Gov. Newsom and the Legislative Black Caucus to the state’s delegations to the United States Senate and House of Representatives, California’s elected leaders — including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) – wrote warm tributes remembering civil rights icon and United States Congressman John Robert Lewis (D-Georgia). Lewis, who was 80, died in Atlanta July 17 from pancreatic cancer.

“John Lewis was a revered civil rights icon who dedicated his entire life to what became his signature mantra, making ‘good trouble,’” said U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) who represents the 43rd District of California.

For 29 years, Waters served alongside Lewis in the U.S. House of Representatives with other California Black Lawmakers, Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) and Barbara Lee (D-Oakland). They stood shoulder-to-shoulder in support of many of the Congressional Black Caucus’s many national and global initiatives.

Pictured above: Carston Cole, son of Brother Robert Cole, Rep. John Lewis, and the elder Cole.

Californians around the state, too, — and across party lines — also posted pictures with Lewis on social media after his death was announced and wrote tributes of their own to honor the African American historical hero who Bass called a humble “giant” and a man that “everybody loved.” Lewis had connections to all corners of the country and strong ties to the Golden State and many of its residents in the South, Central Valley and North.

“I’ve known the Lewis family for years, over 30 years, ever since I was 18,” said Robert L. Cole, who ran for Los Angeles City Council in 2015. Cole’s relationship with the civil rights leader began in 1983 when he left Los Angeles to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta. He had just graduated from Crenshaw High School in South Los Angeles with honors, where he served as student body president. Cole was first introduced to Lewis by his high school vice-principal, who was the Congressman’s sister-in-law Harriet Thornton. At the time, Lewis was an Atlanta city council member, a position he had won on Oct. 7, 1981. Cole would soon become a Lewis’ family fixture.

Pictured above: Rep. John Lewis and Brother Robert Cole speaking to a group of Los Angeles-area students that Cole brought to Washington D.C. in October, 2017.

“Mr. Lewis was always available if I ever needed anything, he would always take my calls, and I had his personal telephone number. He was definitely a good friend — like family to me,” Cole told California Black Media from his L.A. home by telephone. Lewis, the last surviving and youngest member of the Big 6 American civil rights activists, was laid to rest on Thursday, July 30, in Atlanta. The other five were: Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer and Roy Wilkins.

In celebration of his life, “A Lifetime of Service” ceremony was held that day at Ebenezer Baptist Church Horizon Sanctuary, followed by the interment at South-View Cemetery, also in Atlanta. Before that, the body of the man his colleagues called “the Conscience of Congress” was honored to lie in state at the United States Capitol on Monday, June 27, and Tuesday, June 28.

Pictured above: Rep. John Lewis speaking to a group of Los Angeles-area students that Brother Cole brought to Washington D.C. in October, 2017.

Lewis was Born Feb. 21, 1940, near Troy, Alabama to sharecropper parents who worked on fields in rural Pike County. As a young adult, he became a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, helped organize the March on Washington in 1963, and suffered a brutal beating at the hands of an Alabama state trooper, who was forcefully trying to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma on March 7, 1965.

“He took a chance and leaders take chances. They do what they believe in,” Cole said of Lewis. “He did things that he believed in and that I value more than anything else about him.” Cole says, while living in Atlanta, he watched Lewis’s son John-Miles, who the family called “Miles,” while Lewis and his wife Lillian Lewis, who passed away in 2012, traveled mostly on the weekends. In 1986, Lewis was elected Congressman from the 5th District of Georgia after beating Julian Bond for the seat. After graduating from Morehouse, Cole worked for the civil rights activist before returning home to Los Angeles.

Pictured above: Former United States President Barack H. Obama delivering the eulogy at the funeral for Rep. John Lewis on July 30, 2020 at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.

When Lewis first met his future wife in 1967, he didn’t have a driver’s license, Cole said the Congressman told him. After he did get one, Cole said Lewis still didn’t like driving. Lewis’s dislike for being behind the wheel proved to be beneficial to Cole because he heard yarns from a man who had a lot to say – about life, history and his lofty vision for the world. “Oftentimes, I drove with him from Atlanta to D.C. We stayed at his condo in D.C. And every time he had a story to tell me of what was happening to him. It was just amazing,” Cole shared.

When Cole’s son’s sixth grade class from Los Angeles visited Washington, he arranged for the students to meet Lewis, U.S. Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Los Angeles), and U.S. Congresswoman Bass. Lewis actually left a hearing early to meet the students, Cole said. “If anyone needed Mr. Lewis for anything, he would definitely say ‘yes,’” Cole said. “He had a kind heart. He was a rock star.”

Pictured above: Members of the Spring 1986 Alpha Rho pledge line, Enigmatic 17, on the campus of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. Brother Cole is third in the line up.

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