The Legacy of Representative John Lewis
Representative John Lewis, the son of Alabama sharecroppers and Civil Rights pioneer, died last Friday from a battle with pancreatic cancer. John Lewis has been fighting for equality and Black rights for his entire life: from being beaten on Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 to mobilizing in 2020 with the recent killing of Breonna Taylor, Ahmad Arbery, George Floyd, Tony McDade, David McAtee, Italia Kelley, and many others. Rep. Lewis vowed to continue fighting after his cancer diagnosis, saying “I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life”
John Lewis’ early life:
John Lewis was born in 1940 near Troy, Alabama, a town located a little over two hours away from Birmingham, to sharecroppers. Sharecropping came to be after the end of the Civil War and the formal abolition of slavery, yet it was essentially a continuation of slavery. Sharecroppers lived on a farmer’s land in exchange for harvesting and growing crops. Growing up in rural Alabama during the 1940s, Lewis attended segregated schools and saw the growing power of the Civil Rights movement with young leaders like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. making big changes.
Lewis attended The American Baptist Theological Institute in Nashville and Fisk University where he studied religion and philosophy. This education launched him into learning about nonviolent protest and various forms of civil disobedience. As a young man, he became involved in lunch counter sit-ins in an attempt to desegregate public places.
The Beginning of His Civil Rights Legacy:
In 1961, John Lewis elected to join the Freedom Riders, a group of over 400 volunteers who traveled across the South by bus in order to protest the segregation of bus terminals. That ride was the first team Lewis was beaten and arrested, but this would not be the last time he was attacked. Lewis was arrested 40 times between 1960-1966.
In 1963, a young Lewis, only in his early 20s, helped organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This historic event was organized by young Civil Rights leaders to draw attention to the inequalities faced by Black Americans. This historic march is the moment where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Former President John F. Kennedy actually called this march “ill-timed” but the organizers insisted, so he reluctantly approved the march. Lewi was also the representative and the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an organization founded to give young Black people a say in the movement, at the March on Washington.
Perhaps one of the most famous and disturbing images of the Civil Rights movement one of John Lewis being beaten by police on March 7, 1965, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge (named after a leader of the KKK in Alabama) in Selma, Alabama. Lewis organized this march to demand voting rights for Black Americans, and he and the other approximately 600 marchers were met with horrendous violence. Lewis was beaten and attacked by police, hit in the head with a billy club, and sustained a fractured skull. Images from this day, known as “Bloody Sunday”, shocked the world. Reporters and journalists circulated images and videos from this day across the world. This essentially put pressure on then-President Lyndon B Johnson to sign the “Voting Rights Act of 1965”. This law eliminated the racist literacy tests and other barriers Black Americans faced while voting.
What is the Voting Rights Act of 1965?
The 15th Amendment, adopted into the U.S. constitution in 1870, guaranteed the right to vote could not be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”. While this amendment was supposed to guarantee the right to vote, many states still created loopholes to make it extremely hard to vote. Governments enacted poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses and used violence and intimidation to prevent Black Americans from voting. Today, there still exist barriers to voting: voter ID laws, ballots only in Engish, closing polling places, reduction or simply no early voting, long hours, etc., still create difficulties for many voters of color. Currently, there is a push to pass legislation expanding the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and to rename it the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020.
John Lewis’ later life:
In 1986, John Lewis was elected to Congress, representing a district encompassing Atlanta, Georgia. Lewis was the second Black American to be elected to Congress from Georgia since Reconstruction. Lewis’ legacy in Congress is an amazing one. Lewis strived to build a peaceful, equitable society, “a world without poverty, racism or war”. He voted against military spending, opposed the 1991 Persian Gulf War, voted against the North American Free Trade act in 1992. He skipped the 2001 inauguration of then-President George W. Bush because he believed he was not elected fairly. In 2011, Lewis was awarded the highest award possible in the United States: the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was presented with this award by former President Barack Obama, the first Black president of the United States.
In 2016, Lewis led a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives after the deadly shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Lewis and other House Democrats demanded a vote on gun control legislation. He also boycotted the election of President Trump because he believed Russia illegally interfered in the election results.
Representative Lewis dedicated his life to fighting for freedom and equality. He shed blood so that future generations would not have to grow up in a world surrounded by racism and segregation. You can watch the 2020 documentary on John Lewis titled “John Lewis: Good Trouble” to learn more about the legacy of this unbelievable person. Words cannot do justice to the power of Representative Lewis. He is indescribable. We all owe it to him to continue to fight for freedom and equality. As Lewis said in a 2018 Tweet, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Representative Lewis in 1967. Taken by Sam Falk for the New York Times, featured in the cited New York Times article.