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Remembering Civil Rights Titan and Congressman John Lewis

Remembering Civil Rights Titan and Congressman John Lewis

Well done, thy good and faithful servant.

Civil rights icon and Georgia congressman John Lewis passed away this past week, CNN reports. 

Lewis was born February 21, 1940 in rural Alabama, the son of sharecroppers who dedicated his life to fighting for justice. At just 18 years old, a letter Lewis wrote to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. about his desire to integrate Troy University, would set his feet on the path to justice. While King supported him, bringing Lewis to Montgomery, Alabama to discuss his plan, Lewis ultimately decided against the action, opting to head to Tennessee instead, graduating from American Baptist Theological Seminary and going on to receive a bachelor’s from Fisk University in 1967. During his time in school, he studied the strategies of non-violent protests, participating in some of the very first sit-ins in Nashville. 

The famed leader would eventually join the Freedom Riders, and at the age of 23, became the youngest person to speak at the historic 1963 March on Washington. By 1965, Lewis was chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), where he helped lead protests across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama to march for voting rights. It was during that march that Lewis was brutally beaten by police, receiving a fractured skull, at what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” The shocking brutality helped spur an uprising across the nation that eventually led to widespread support of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“Sometimes when I look back and think about it, how did we do what we did? How did we succeed? …But I felt when we were sitting in at those lunch counter stools, or going on the Freedom Ride, or marching from Selma to Montgomery, there was a power and a force. God Almighty was there with us. I gave a little blood on that bridge. I thought I was going to die. I thought I saw death,” Lewis once said. 

Despite the horrors he faced over the course of six decades in the fight for civil rights, Lewis never lost hope and he never lost his commitment to justice. He continued to serve, as Director of the Voter Education project from 1971 until 1977, where he registered 4 million minorities to vote. As Associate Director of the Federal Volunteer Agency ACTION appointed by President Jimmy Carter. As city councilman in Atlanta, Georgia in 1981. And then as Congressman in Georgia, having been elected in 1986 and holding the position until the day he passed. 

“It is with inconsolable grief and enduring sadness that we announce the passing of U.S. Rep. John Lewis. He was honored and respected as the conscience of the US Congress and an icon of American history, but we knew him as a loving father and brother. He was a stalwart champion in the on-going struggle to demand respect for the dignity and worth of every human being. He dedicated his entire life to non-violent activism and was an outspoken advocate in the struggle for equal justice in America. He will be deeply missed,” Lewis’ family said in a statement. 

Throughout his more than three decades in Congress, Lewis continued to embody the same spirit he had when he started as just a young man. He served as senior Chief Deputy Whip for the Democratic Party, and a member of the House Ways & Means Committee. He fought against poverty, for LGBTQ rights, for gun control, better education and health care. He endorsed then-Senator Barack Obama when his run for President still seemed impossible. He continued to support young organizers, backing them and supporting in any way he could. In 2010, President Barack Obama honored him with the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

Recently, after the murder of George Floyd, Lewis again offer words that served as light in a dark place for our nation, saying, “I heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. say on many occasions, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ I still believe we will get there. We will redeem the soul of America, and in doing so we will inspire people around the world to stand up and speak out.”

Since his passing, there have been calls to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Lewis’ honor, with a change.org petition garnering more than half a million signatures thus far. Lewis’ passing came just hours after the passing of his friend and ally in justice, civil rights leader Rev. C.T. Vivian.

Congressman John Lewis passed away after a short battle with cancer. He was 80 years old. 

Photo Courtesy of Brinley Hineman/Associated Press