ATLANTA – Civil Rights icon Congressman John Lewis passed away Friday evening in Atlanta at the age of 80. His death marked the end of a life lived serving others as a true American hero and moral leader who was respected the world over, and left a mark on American history that few can ever achieve.
Congressman Lewis was born February 21, 1940 outside of Troy, Alabama. His parents were sharecroppers at the time of his birth and as he grew up in Alabama, he attended segregated schools in Pike County, Alabama. Lewis was coming of age as the burgeoning civil rights movement started to take shape in the Deep South. He was 15 when the Montgomery Bus Boycotts began after the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a bus in 1955. It all helped to form Lewis’ future of fighting for civil and human rights for everyone.
Lewis attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee after high school. While a student there, he helped organize sit-in demonstrations over segregated lunch counters in Nashville. He embraced the Gandhian philosophy of nonviolence from his earliest days of public service, and helped form the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1960. By 1961, Lewis was volunteering in the Freedom Rides that challenged segregation on interstate buses and bus terminals in the South. The Freedom Riders were met with violence and beatings in Alabama and other areas. Still, Lewis pushed ahead with non-violent resistance.
In 1963, Lewis took over as chairman of the SNCC; a post he held until 1966. After he was named chairman, Lewis was recognized as one of the Big Six leaders of the Civil Rights movement along with Whitney Young, A. Phillip Randolph, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, and Roy Wilkins. Lewis helped organize, and spoke at, the March on Washington that culminated with Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Lewis’ speech at the March on Washington in 1964 was one of the most powerful of the day, calling on people across the nation to join with them in the fight for civil and voting rights.
“To those who have said, 'Be patient and wait,' we have long said that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen," Lewis said at the March on Washington. "We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, 'Be patient,' How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now.”
Lewis continued to lead the Civil Rights Movement across the South and helped coordinate the Freedom Summer in 1964. During that time, his groups worked on voter registration drives and community action programs in the deeply segregated state of Mississippi. His work helped foster the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But even with a new federal law in place, the fight for civil rights was far from over, and Lewis remained on the front line heading into 1965 when things took a very violent turn in Alabama.
On March 7, 1965, Lewis and Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference gathered a group of approximately 600 people at a church in downtown Selma, Alabama. The group was planning a peaceful march from Selma to Alabama’s capital of Montgomery. The group knelt briefly in prayer before beginning to walk, two-by-two through the city streets. As soon as the group got to the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, roughly 150 Alabama state troopers, sheriff’s deputies, and others met them with horrific violence.
In testimony given during a federal hearing less than a week later, Lewis recounted what happened during the chaos that ensued. Lewis said the group of troopers were led by a Major Cloud who said, “I am Major Cloud, and this is an unlawful assembly. This demonstration will not continue. You have been banned by the Governor. I am going to order you to disperse.”
Lewis said Williams repeatedly asked to speak to the Major and was repeatedly denied before being told, “I will give you two minutes to leave." Sixty-five seconds later, the troopers advanced using clubs, bullwhips, tear gas, and dogs to brutally attack the peaceful protesters.”
Lewis testified he was hit with a billy club and that troopers said, “Move back. Move back, you niggers, disperse,” along with calling people “black bitches and son of bitches and things like that.” Many of the protesters knelt in a prayerful manner as the attacks continued and troopers deployed tear gas.
Lewis suffered a skull fracture during the beatings and was one of 58 people taken to a local hospital for injuries inflicted by the vicious mob of troopers and others. The event, which became known as Bloody Sunday, happened in front of television camera and served as a key turning point in the fight for civil rights. Later that same year, Lewis was at the side of President Lyndon Johnson when he signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 1966, Lewis left the SNCC and worked for the next decade on other programs that pushed for everyone to have the right to vote. Then in 1977, Lewis unsuccessfully ran for Congress, but was then appointed by President Jimmy Carter to direct more than 250,000 volunteers of ACTION, a federal volunteer agency. Lewis held the position for more than two years before resigning as the 1980 presidential election approached.
After leaving national politics, Lewis was elected to the Atlanta City Council in 1981. He worked on city issues for the next five years before mounting another run for Congress, seeking the seat for Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District. He faced a tough challenger in his 1986 run for Congress in state Representative Julian Bond, a fellow civil rights activist who helped found SNCC and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Lewis beat Bond in a runoff, 52-48 percent and in January 1987, took the oath of office to become Congressman John Lewis.
Lewis served in Congress since his election in ‘86 and was the Senior Chief Deputy Whip for the Democratic Party in the House at the time of his passing. He served in a variety of roles in the current Congress as a member of the House Ways & Means Committee and a member of its Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support, and ranking member of its Subcommittee on Oversight. Lewis maintained his non-violence push throughout his life and times in Congress. As recently as 2016, Congressman Lewis led House Democrats in a sit-in on the floor of the House demanding a vote on gun control measures.
Lewis was awarded more than 50 honorary degrees from colleges and universities throughout the United States including: Harvard, Brown, Penn, Princeton, Duke, Morehouse, Clark-Atlanta, Howard, Brandeis University, Columbia University, Fisk University, and Troy State University. He also was the recipient of the Medal of Freedom, Lincoln Medal, Capital Award of the National Council of Law Raza, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Non-Violent Peace Prize, President’s Medal of Georgetown University, NAACP Spingarn Medal, the NEA Martin Luther King Memorial Award, and the only JFK “Profile in Courage Award” for lifetime achievement ever granted by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.
The late Congressman also wrote multiple books, including his biography, “Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement,” along with others like MARCH, a bestselling graphic novel trilogy. He was also the subject of two books that looked at his life during the Freedom Riders era and another called “John Lewis in the Lead.”
It’s difficult to summarize the impact a hero like John Lewis has had on American and world history to so few words. His legacy will long live on as one of the people most responsible for advancing civil, voting, and human rights in the United States. He commanded an audience and held a moral authority few in public life will ever get close to seeing. He held a revolutionary spirit that inspired a nation to rethink how we looked not only at our government, but how we looked at each other.
Few will ever have as large of an impact on a nation as Congressman John Lewis. As history looks back on the life of Congressman Lewis, it will do so with reverence and a faith in humanity that is often lost in current times