If heroes are made in the trenches fighting for freedom, John Lewis – civil-rights icon and United States congressman from Georgia – always will be remembered among the hallowed ranks of America’s greatest leaders for enduring brutality while peacefully helping move America toward freedom and justice for all.
John Robert Lewis was born in 1940 into a sharecropping family in Troy, Alabama. He died from cancer on July 17, 2020, at the age of 80.
His body bore not merely the ravages of physical disease, but also scars thrust upon him from the moral and ethical disease of white supremacy.
In awarding Lewis the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, President Barack Obama compared the civil-rights leader to Abraham Lincoln.
At the time of the medal presentation, President Obama said of Congressman Lewis, “Generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind – an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time; whose life is a lesson in the fierce urgency of now.”
As a child, he planned to become a minister, but in his teen years Lewis found an even greater calling in life: getting into “good trouble” – as he would later say – in the fight for human equality.
Refusing to accept Jim Crow segregation and apartheid as a teenager, Lewis found encouragement in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, only to watch as the decision did not impact his own segregated experiences.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons and the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott, however, provided hope and inspiration for a better future for Black Americans.
While attending the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, a Black Baptist school, Lewis became involved in local, nonviolent efforts to integrate public facilities in the city by helping organize lunch counter sit-ins.
With fellow activists, he sat at lunch counters while angry white people verbally accosted him, spit on him and burned him with cigarettes.
Arrested multiple times for his sit-in activism, John Lewis remained undeterred, establishing a lifelong pattern of confronting racial hatred with courage, calmness, peace and love.
Considered the youngest of the major civil rights leaders of the 1960s, Lewis led in the 1961 Freedom Rides, bus trips throughout the South protesting segregated bus terminals.
As the beatings and arrests grew into the dozens, Lewis never wavered.
In 1963, he became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
The same year, and now a close ally of King, he was a planner and the youngest speaker during the 1963 March on Washington for civil and economic rights for African Americans.
Perhaps Lewis’ most famous line from the 1963 march was, “We all recognize the fact that if any radical social, political and economic changes are to take place in our society, the people, the masses, must bring them about.”
In a world of white supremacy, the changes Lewis advocated were radical. For centuries, southern states and local governments through violence and unjust laws had systemically denied black citizens the right to vote as guaranteed in the 15th Amendment passed in 1870.
Lewis joined with other civil rights leaders in an effort to move the federal government to enforce the 15th Amendment.
On March 7, 1965, he stood upon the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, with some 600 other activists, leading a march protesting the state’s refusal to allow Blacks to vote.
Lewis and his fellow activists planned to peacefully march to the state capitol in Montgomery, but they never got beyond the bridge.
Brutally assaulted by Alabama state troopers, the blood of the peaceful demonstrators spilled upon the ground. Lewis suffered a skull fracture.
News media covered the police brutality; the images immediately sent shockwaves throughout America.
With blood dripping from his scalp and down his face, prior to being treated for the injury, Lewis pleaded with President Lyndon Johnson to stop the violence in Alabama.
Eight days later, in response to the white supremacist violence at the Edmund Pettus bridge, Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act of 1965, legislation prohibiting state and local governments from denying African Americans the right to vote.
The legislation, considered among the most important civil-rights legislation in America, reinforced the 15th Amendment by federally protecting Black Americans’ right to vote.
Johnson also sent in the Alabama National Guard to protect subsequent marchers, his actions on voting rights legislation and against violent white mobs helping turn the political tide in favor of civil rights for African Americans.
In the 1970s, as racial protests faded but racism remained entrenched in America, Lewis never lost his focus on his mission of empowering disadvantaged minorities.
Appointed by President Jimmy Carter to direct the federal voluntary agency, ACTION, Lewis directed more than 250,000 volunteers.
From 1981 to 1986, he served on the Atlanta City Council, and in 1986 he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia’s 5th district.
Reelected 16 times until the time of his death, U.S. Rep. Lewis, only the second African American since Reconstruction to represent Georgia in Congress, devoted his long political career to expanding social, political and economic rights for minorities.
Throughout his congressional career, Lewis remained an open and unapologetic liberal.
Consistently championing human rights and peace, he became known as the “Conscience of Congress.”
He voiced support of gay rights and national health care, opposed President Bill Clinton’s conservative welfare reforms, frequently spoke out against American military interventions – including the Gulf and Iraq wars – and spoke in favor of gun control in the wake of mass shootings. And always he advocated for the protection of minority voting rights.
For much of his political career in the nation’s capitol, Lewis also advocated for a Black history museum on the National Mall.
His tireless efforts came to fruition in the 2016 opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Some Black historians consider the museum as Lewis’ greatest legacy.
In March 2020, Lewis addressed a large crowd on the Edmund Pettus Bridge at the 55th anniversary of Selma’s Bloody Sunday.
Many Black American leaders are calling for the bridge, named after a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, to be renamed after Lewis.
It would be a fitting tribute for an American hero who gave his body and his life to the fight for human rights.
Shortly before his death, Lewis found hope in this summer’s inclusive Black Lives Matter protests over the murder of George Floyd, a victim of police brutality not altogether unlike that endured by the congressman in the 1960s.
On “CBS This Morning,” Lewis summarized both his own mission in life and the present renewed energy for racial justice: “There cannot be any turning back. We have come too far and made too much progress to stop now and go back.”
In life as well as in death, John Lewis, civil-rights icon and congressman, remains a modern hero and voice of a nation fighting the evils of ever-preset racism while striving to live up to its founding ideals of human rights.